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Teddi Hunter and Jennifer Backer; Co-Chairs of Project Cicero New Jersey Chapter. (Photo by Anne-Marie Caruso)
Posted: Friday September 13, 2013, 1:12 PM
By Laura Herzog - (201) Magazine

Nearly 200 New Jersey teachers stood in The Elisabeth Morrow School (EMS) gymnasium in Englewood.

They were watching, waiting, their eyes darting around excitedly.

About 35,000 books, lined up on categorized tables, were theirs for the taking – free of charge.

There were books for pre-K through high school students. Math books, history books, science books. In fiction, there was Lois Lowry's The Giver and Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street. Popular series included Beautiful Creatures, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and Artemis Fowl.

The event co-chairs, Bergen residents Teddi Hunter and Jennifer Backer, rang the figurative opening bell – and the teachers were off. Most were members of Teach for America Greater Newark, and many had students without books at home.

It was, in Newark teacher Michael Wade Smith's words, "like a Black Friday shopping spree, where everyone is crowding around the door.

"We kind of knew which table we wanted," says the high school English teacher, who took "two carloads" of books back to his classroom. "As soon as they said 'go,' we sprinted to that table."

"We were all running around," says Gwen LaMastro, a sixth-grade math teacher in Passaic. "It's so rare that you get that kind of generosity. We were all just looking at each other like, 'Wow, this is actually happening.'"

"They stayed for 90 minutes, or two hours some of them," EMS headmaster Aaron Cooper says. "All the boxes [teachers used to carry books] were breaking because they put too many books in them."

That special free book fair, which took place last March, included book donations amassed from previous book drives at 21 participating Bergen County schools. It was the inaugural Project Cicero book drive for North Jersey's under-resourced schools.

This month, Backer and Hunter are already gearing up to recreate this year's magic – bigger and better – at their next big book fair, to be held again at EMS on Saturday, March 8, 2014.

Hunter and Backer are looking for donated storage space in the Englewood or Fort Lee area, as well as any additional New Jersey schools or groups that want to donate books this year.

Only new and gently used books will be accepted, as was the case last year.

"You know that feeling when you go to the bookstore, and it's a new book? You know that smell?" Hunter says. "We wanted to give the kids that feeling. I wanted that experience to be as exciting as my kids get, or for me when I open up a book."

With their first success down, Hunter and Backer are gearing up for the long run, and they are following in the footsteps of other determined volunteers. While Project Cicero is still new to New Jersey, the project is well known among New York City educators. Named after a Roman statesman said to have created extensive libraries in the first century B.C., Project Cicero book drives have already taken place each year since 2001 in New York City.

Founded by four women, Project Cicero is an independent partnership of schools, corporations and organizations that have given two million books, donated by individuals from about 100 schools, to 425,000 students at under-resourced New York City public schools.

Hunter, who first conceived of the idea for a New Jersey Project Cicero, says inspiration came in January 2012, when she read about Project Cicero co-founder Laureine Greenbaum in an another organization's newsletter.

"I was like, 'Oh my god, this is the best idea,'" recalls Hunter, an Englewood resident and former lawyer whose children attend EMS. "Reading, to me, it opens up your world."

Hunter contacted Greenbaum and her co-chair, Susan Robbins, who then explained the process to her and her close friend Backer.

"It was a no-brainer for me," says Backer, a Fort Lee resident, fellow mother and professional organizer. "Nobody wants to throw away books. The premise is so simple. Everybody involved is so happy. It's just a feel-good event all around."

Hunter and Backer enlisted dozens of other volunteers, including many impassioned local students who helped at the main event at EMS, where the collected books were distributed. Uncle Bob's Self Storage, Staples and North Jersey Media Group respectively donated storage, boxes and transportation, Hunter says.

"It was a whole team, family effort," Backer says.

The impact on the students who received the books has already been significant, teachers note.

"It was phenomenal," LeMastro says. "I can't even tell you how much of an impact it had. There is definitely more enthusiasm for going to the [class] library."

"All of my kids went home with a book that they were interested in that they got to keep," Smith says. "They tell me the books we've read in class are actually the first books they've ever read on their own. They're excited to explore some new titles. They are definitely growing a love of reading."

Those books are "1,000 percent opening the doors to bright futures for our kids," he adds.

Other students have been affected, too. Cooper says EMS students, who are taught "to whom much is given, much is expected," "were not surprised so much as saddened" by need for books at nearby schools.

According to Robbins, the two energetic and determined co-chairs are like the New York founders years ago.

"[Teddi and Jennifer] were amazing. It's like the four of us when we started," Robbins says. "I think it'll just grow organically. I imagine they'll add at least 10 schools, which will add at least 10,000 books."

Other individuals previously expressed interest in spreading the project outside New York, but it just never worked out, Greenbaum says. By being the first, Hunter and Backer are paving the way for the project to go national.

"I'm so excited to extend the idea of Project Cicero into another area," she says. "I'd like to see it expand all over the country. Why shouldn't children have access to books when they can so easily?"

Parties interested in donating new and gently used book can email projectciceronnj@gmail.com.

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