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13 Reads: Teacher hopes book vending machine could be game changer for students

Buchanan Elementary School in Grand Rapids is raising money to purchase one for its students. The mastermind behind the idea calls it a "dream project."

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich — Make no mistake about Caitlin Freer's passion for reading. It's one of her favorite things to do.

"In the other room here, I've got all sorts of book cases set up and they're completely full. I have no room to add anything else at this point," she said with a laugh from her home during a Zoom interview Thursday afternoon.

As a teacher at Buchanan Elementary School on the southwest side of Grand Rapids, part of Freer's goal is to share her passion for literature with her students. That's not always easy, but she says it is rewarding.

"I'm working with some of our students who sometimes struggle with reading so to build that passion even though it's something they struggle with is really important to me, to be able to share that love of books with my students," she said.

A few years ago, Freer thought up the idea to buy a book vending machine for the school. She hoped it would make reading more special to students than checking out books from the school library, because the kids would have to earn the books and then they'd get to keep them.

But because of the expensive price tag, she put off searching for funding for the idea.

"We'll worry about that next year. I'll deal with that next year," she says she kept telling herself.

The arrival of principal Adam Gutierrez to Buchanan Elementary this year rekindled Freer's quest.

"He and I talked right before the start of the school year and he wanted to do this, so we got it up pretty quickly at the start of the year," she said.

The vending machines would come customized with Buchanan Elementary school logos on it and kids would be able to earn gold coins as a reward, that they could redeem for one book.

"We've talked about a lot of different ways that we could use this. This could be used for some positive behavior rewards with our students. We focus a lot on some of the social emotional skills in learning like perseverance, and self control and some of those kinds of things too, especially with our young learners," Freer said. 

Buchanan Elementary is raising money for the vending machine through a website called Donors Choose, which helps teachers across the country, including many in West Michigan, fundraise for projects they feel will make a difference for their students.

"I could go on all day talking about how amazing our students, our families, and our staff are at our building," she said of the predominantly Hispanic school.

"They are creative and smart and hilarious and I learn as much from them as I teach them every day."

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