By the time kids get to Jozii Ruiz’s dental clinic in Hartford, Conn., decay has already tunneled its way into their teeth. Her job is to give them a reason to smile again.
This is exactly what happened on Oct. 17 when they walked into Burgdorf Health Center and were told they could take whatever they wanted from a stack of 500 brand-new books.
“I started out just buying a few books with my own money so kids could have something to read while they recover from anesthesia,” Ruiz says. “But our clinic serves a population that needs a bit more support; and this way, we were able to touch so many more families. And they are families that the schools may not reach. Some kids may be home-schooled and don’t have access to school-based book fairs. But all kids have to see to the doctor.”
Ruiz, a member of University Health Professionals, purchased the books through a grant from the American Federation of Teachers’ Reading Opens the World initiative, which has distributed more than 1.5 million books and hosted nearly 300 events across the country since its launch in December 2021. By the end of the day, she had just a handful of books left over; she gave them to the various clinics in Hartford to establish their own libraries.
Each of the clinics set up a table at the Oct. 17 event, from maternal and child health to disease prevention to senior care, and gave out lunch bags with nonperishable food and reusable containers and water bottles, Band-Aids and tote bags to anyone who came through, whether a family, a grandparent or a guardian.
“A young woman came through with a beautiful newborn baby,” Ruiz says. “She asked if she could please have a book for her baby, so we picked out Caterpillar, Caterpillar.” She said she lived in a shelter and had nothing but herself, her baby and this book. “She just wanted to read to her baby.”
Those encounters can be difficult, Ruiz says.
“You just turn your head a little bit, give them what they need, and maybe drop a few tears,” she says. “But I have always loved working in my community. When I take my last breath, I’m sure I will still be working in a community center.”
Before Ruiz left, people were asking when there would be another book event. Her hope is that there will be.
“I want this to get bigger and be an example for all the other health centers,” she says. “This is what we do; we serve whole families and whole children who have needs beyond their teeth.”
“The labor movement has a calling to elevate life for people, even they’re not covered by our contract,” says Chris DeFrancesco, the University Health Professionals vice president for communication. “We are charged with making the world a better place for working families, and that’s what Jozii is doing by putting books into the kids’ hands.”
—Melanie Boyer, AFT