Who needs video games? Books are a hit with kids in rescued Morristown Neighborhood House program

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Okay, Adam Garcia prefers video games.

But that didn’t stop the sixth-grader from digging into piles of free books distributed Wednesday at the Frelinghuysen Middle School in Morris Township. Adam found The Titan’s Curse and The Battle of the Labyrinth by one of his favorite writers, Rick Riordan.

“They’re funny and suspenseful,” Adam said of Rick’s action fantasies. “Usually when they end on cliffhangers I just keep reading.”

About 60 kids in the STARS after-school program, run by the Morristown Neighborhood House at the Frelinghuysen school, were allowed to select up to five free books apiece. The books were donated by volunteers from State Farm Insurance and Enterprise Rent-A-Car, who teamed with New Jersey After 3, a nonprofit organization that helps fund STARS (Smart Talented Athletic Responsible Students).

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“Last year our employees emptied their attics for books. This year, our customers helped out,” said John Keough of Enterprise.

kyle nordhan
JUGGLING HIS READING: Kyle Nordhan, 13, shows off free books donated to the STARS after-school program at the Frelinghuysen Middle School. His reading list includes 'Love That Dog,' "The Lightning Thief' and 'Just Grapes.' Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“It’s our responsibility to give back to the community,” said State Farm’s Cheryl Williamson, a mother of four. “My kids emptied out all their books.”

New Jersey After 3 also bought books through the federal Reading Is Fundamental program, said Mark Valli, CEO of New Jersey After 3.  All the titles were deemed age-appropriate by Scholastic Books, he said.

Students also received blank “Dream Journals”–in honor of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.–to record their own aspirations.

The mission of New Jersey After 3, a nonprofit based in New Brunswick, is to keep underprivileged kids safe after school and to promote learning and culture in a fun environment, Mark said.

That mission was threatened last year when the organization lost all its state funding. Gov. Christie restored $3 million–just one-third of its budget–and New Jersey After 3 had to eliminate programs in 80 of 115 schools.

It looked like the STARS program would be among the casualties. But New Jersey After 3 came up with $100,000 and area foundations and individuals contributed matching funds. So STARS will make it through its sixth school year, said Lashone Murphy, who manages the program for the Neighborhood House.

Mark Valli was impressed Wednesday by his first visit to STARS.

“Kids are coming here in good numbers. Middle schoolers vote with their feet–and they’re showing up. We’re proud of (the Neighborhood House). They competed to be here” after the budget cuts, he said.

STARS serves about 100 children, down from around 250 when funding was higher. Many of the kids come from low-income families; this year the Nabe is charging families $10 a week, Lashone said.  The after-school itinerary includes sports, tutoring, musical instruction and occasional field trips.

The program’s reprieve is good news for seventh-grader MacKenzie Garrity.

“I’d be pretty disappointed” if STARS shut down, “because everybody’s nice. It’s a place where you can do your homework and calm down after the school day.”

VIDEO: MORRISTOWN’S NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSE FIGHTS TO SAVE AFTER-SCHOOL PROGRAM

Isaac Castillo is hooked. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Sixth-grader Isaac Castillo is hooked. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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