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Meriden student becomes ambassador for literacy

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MERIDEN — Having grown up overcoming a speech impediment that made reading and writing difficult, 10-year-old Jason Hayes II was inspired to help his classmates. 

As a fifth-grader at Pulaski Elementary School last year, Hayes created a “little free library” where classmates could take and return books out of a decorated wooden box on a post. 

“It helps kids who can't get to the library still have access to books,” said Hayes, now in the sixth grade at Lincoln Middle School.

Hayes created the miniature library as part of a project he completed to run in a school-wide election for Connecticut Kid Governor. Hayes won the school election and later earned a spot on the Kid Govenor’s six-student cabinet. He is the first Meriden student to serve in the cabinet.

Each student running for Kid Governor is tasked with selecting a single-issue “platform.” Hayes, inspired by his parents, chose improving youth literacy. Nickimmy and Jason Hayes Sr.  practiced reading with him and drove him to speech therapy from the time he was 3 years old. 

“My dad was one of the people that inspired me because he would always make me work extra hard on reading and stopping stuttering,” said Hayes, who is now reading at grade level and no longer requires speech therapy. 

Because her son was often shy and reluctant to speak in front of others, Nickimmy Hayes was shocked to learn he volunteered to run for Kid Governor. 

“I was like, ‘This kid actually got up and gave a speech in front of all his peers?’” Nickimmy Hayes said. “It’s pretty amazing just to see the progression from where he was to where he is now. ”

The Kid Governor program was started in 2015 by the Connecticut Democracy Center to promote civic education and engagement. Every year, fifth-graders at participating schools are given the chance to run in a school-wide election. A committee then selects seven finalists from all the school winners and an election is held for the governor position. The six finalists who don’t win the governorship are invited to serve as “cabinet members.”

“He cares so much about it, and it’s been great to see him move his platform forward this year as a member of the cabinet,” said kid governor program head Brian Cofrancesco, a Meriden resident. “… He's one of the most caring and compassionate kids I’ve worked with.” 

Group effort

After hearing about his idea to build a little free library at Pulaski, Cofrancesco connected him with JoAnne Grabinski, a Meriden resident who was in the process of obtaining a $4,000 grant from the James H. Napier Foundation to put up more than a dozen free little libraries around the city.   

“It all seemed to come together at once,” Nickimmy Hayes said.  

About 15 libraries have been installed this year with the help of the community.

Carpentry students at Wilcox Technical High School created the wooden libraries and various local groups and individuals painted and decorated them in space provided by Gallery 53 on Colony Street.

The Meriden Public Library and the library’s nonprofit arm, Friends of the Library, donated books and members of Amici Della Vigna, a small South Meriden-based nonprofit, volunteered to install the libraries at parks and other landmarks.

The Record-Journal donated old newsstands that have been repurposed as libraries, Grabinski said, and the Meriden Housing Authority and the city’s Parks and Recreation Department have also cooperated with the initiative. 

Grabinski said a total of 21 libraries are expected to be installed by the end of the year.

“They’re a hit. People are enjoying them and asking if they can get them for their own yard,” said Christine Webster, president of Gallery 53.

‘Nice feeling’

Before Grabinski secured the $4,000 grant, Meriden previously had a few little free libraries, including one at Tom’s Place diner in South Meriden.

“It’s really a delight to see so many people using them,” she said, “and I hope that it continues, especially in the winter months. But to have people post pictures of their kids getting books and putting books in, it’s a nice feeling.”

A Facebook group set up for the libraries — “Meriden Little Free Libraries” — has nearly 400 members.

A number of residents, including Jason Hayes, have volunteered as “stewards” of the libraries. He is maintaining three —  the one he created at Pulaski and others at Washington Park and Yale Acres.

“What a wonderful kid he is,” Grabinski said. “It’s great that he has a platform about literacy, and this just ties in so well with that. It’s a testament to his dedication to this issue.” 

Twitter: @MatthewZabierek

Jason Hayes II, 10, and mother Nickimmy, of Meriden, talk about the Little Free Libraries they keep stocked with books around the city, Wed., Sept. 18, 2019. Dave Zajac, Record-Journal

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