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Turning the page on Blue Ridge

The man waiting beside a stack of books smiled and gently nodded when informed the store would soon clear out and he would be able to reach the counter to make his purchase.

“There’s no problem. It’s great that they are here,” he said.

His patient gaze swept over a crowd of Blue Ridge Elementary School fifth-graders, fenced by teachers and paraeducators, at Book & Game Company on Friday.

Curious children looked at doodads, games, art supplies and books in every nook of the Main Street store. The choice was all theirs, thanks to a collaboration between the Blue Ridge PTA, teachers, Book & Game employees and the Walla Walla Public Schools transportation department.

These students, like every Blue Ridge kid, were in possession of $15 gift cards to spend as they liked.

And a lot of liking was going on.

Miguel Gomez, speaking through his paraeducator, Rosa Vasquez, said he’s never been in a bookstore before. On this initial visit, Miguel’s eye was drawn to the mesh bag of glistening black marbles he was hefting in his hand.

Nearby, Rafael Vasquez knew just what he wanted. A Melissa & Doug mini sketch pad in one hand, the boy was examining packs of colorful markers.

Getting new art supplies of his own choosing was fun, Rafael said before dashing off to consult with a friend.

For Sofia Camacho, being at a bookstore meant buying books.

“I love to read. This is exciting,” she said.

Her eyes followed every step of the ringing-up process for “Tokyo Ghoul,” a graphic novel. When she was handed the green bag, Sofia carefully wrote her name across the top, following the instruction of Blue Ridge teacher Jeremy Hubbard as he assisted each student shopper.

This moment began with an ending.

Because their building will cease to be an elementary school next year and will become an early learning hub, the Blue Ridge PTA had to disband. That happened at the end of October, said former President Jessica Morlan.

Past fundraisers had left the organization with leftover money to disperse. Members decided to give $550 to the PTAs at the district’s four remaining elementary schools, Morlan explained.

“We wanted to make sure our kids were still being supported wherever they go next year, that it was going to their benefit. We wanted to give them one last gift.”

The PTA’s vice president, Catelyn Hanson, had one more idea in mind — spending the final $3,700 at Book & Game, one $15 gift card per student.

“We discussed it as a board that we wanted to keep the money local and give our kids a last celebration while at Blue Ridge,” Morlan said.

Fourth-grade teacher Russell Carroll was delighted by this plan, but he realized that handing out gift cards to students at the end of a school day was unlikely to honor the PTA’s gesture.

Not only were some of those cards likely to linger in backpacks or get lost, but not every family can make time to take kids to the bookstore, he pointed out.

Carroll said he’s been inspired by a story in the Seattle Times of a teacher who got students to a bookstore for a field trip.

For years, Garfield High School teacher Adam Gish has orchestrated trips to bookstores for students, especially those who had never gone before. Gish found funding to make sure every student could buy a book they could own forever, then made sure those teens could access books.

Carroll said he’s been thinking about it since reading the 2018 story, wondering how he could create something similar and inclusive for Blue Ridge pupils.

“Kids don’t always get to go to a bookstore to pick out their own books,” he said.

When the PTA announced its gift card plan, Russell asked for a hold while he worked to line up mass transportation. That way, he explained, every student could actually get downtown and into Book & Game, independent of a parent or another adult.

With “amazingly” short notice, the WWPS transportation department found a path to bringing Russell’s idea to fruition. Over the course of a few days, including today, school buses disgorged excited students — some who had no concept of a bookstore — and picked them up about an hour later, the children clutching their new treasures.

Not every student chose a book. Some bought card games, some shopped for family Christmas gifts. No matter the item, they had to use math skills to factor in actual cost and sales tax, Russell said.

The real memory comes from having choices, the educator added.

“They got to make a choice for themselves … this was ‘buy what you want,’” Russell said.

“‘Things I can see and pick out and no one is going to tell me I can’t.’”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.