Behind the Scenes at First Book Canada: Grace

Grace Mahas is the Communications and Events Intern managing the 2018 – 2019 Raptors 905 Reading Challenge and the 8th Annual RBC Capital Markets Pongapalooza.

Do you want to start with introducing yourself?

My name is Grace, I’m the Communications and Events Intern at First Book Canada. I do a little bit of everything. I run two programs: the Raptors 905 Reading Challenge, where one grade 5 class at 20 schools is given 7 books to read and review over 7 weeks; and the RBC Capital Markets Pongapalooza, which is our annual fundraising ping pong tournament.

Since the Reading Challenge happens over January and February, what’s your day to day looked like so far?

In the beginning, it was a lot of fielding questions from teachers as well as creating marketing materials and social media content. I also monitor our social media channels to see where the hashtag #905ReadingChallenge was used to record the bonus points for the schools that participated online. I also read the reports from the students – that’s about 525 each week on average.

Do you work closely with the Raptors 905 team?

Yes, I work with Melanie at MLSE who is part of the Raptors 905 team. We communicate a lot to put together this program. We’ve had a few cool events. One that was really cool was having Duane Notice attend one of the schools on February 15 at St. Catherine of Siena Public School. He visited the participating grade 5 class where they asked a range of questions from “how tall are you?” to “what inspired you to be a basketball player?” He also gave a huge speech in the gym where they brought all the grade 5 – 8 classes down to ask him questions. He even showed off some of his dunking skills. That was really fun.

So do the students just read the books and the Reading Challenge is done?

We’re planning a big Celebration Day at the Paramount Centre. That’s going to be super fun. We’ve had some authors, who have books in the Reading Challenge, already confirm attendance. There will be a few activity stations for the students, they’ll get some of their books signed by the authors, and they’ll get a free lunch. We’ll also have some esteemed guests joining us.

Someone unfamiliar with this program might be interested in knowing: why are these classes participating and how does a teacher get involved in this?

These are 20 schools that have been chosen in collaboration with their associated school boards. In order to be chosen, your school has to be identified as serving kids who are from high-needs neighbourhoods and must be registered with First Book Canada. There have been studies that show that the number of books you have at home directly affects your academic success. Through our programs, we’re trying to get books into the home libraries of kids who need them.

Teachers can get more information by reaching out to canada@firstbook.org.

Do you want to explain a bit more about what you do with Pongapalooza? Why do we have a ping pong tournament?

This early in the year [March], most of my work is requesting sponsorships. This tournament is our annual fundraiser so all the proceeds go to supporting our programs, like the Raptors 905 Reading Challenge and our Book Distributions. Our Executive Director, Tom Best, said Pongapalooza started the first year as a fun event to raise funds and now it’s going into its 8th year at SPiN Toronto.

What has been your favourite part of your internship so far?

I think that having Duane Notice visit the school has been my favourite part. We had to organize this event quickly with the school’s schedule since we only had 2 days notice of availability in his schedule. I want to shout out Lilla Leo for helping us make that event so fantastic. She organized the school assembly and there was a beautiful display case created by the grade 1 students.

I could see how excited the kids were to see him and talk to him. I think it made the Reading Challenge more concrete to have a player come and talk to them about the book they were reading that week and how reading was important to his success in his basketball career. It was also special because that school had been involved in the Reading Challenge 3 years prior, so their grade 8 class had participated as grade 5 students and they were also able to meet Duane.

I heard that he read with the students!

He read The Ice Chips and the Magical Rink Roy MacGregor and Kerry MacGregor, which was the book the students were starting when he visited them.

What is something that was surprising to you about what we do?

When I helped with the National Book Bank in Vaughan, that was the most surprising thing about First Book Canada to me. We borrow a warehouse space, so going to that warehouse and seeing how much physical labour and organization goes into distribution thousands of books to teachers was amazing. With a National Book Bank especially, there’s a huge form that Rebeca, our Programs Coordinator, has to create for members to request books. Then the books get shipped to the warehouse in giant pallets and they have to be arranged into the orders by volunteers. If you didn’t see it from this side, you wouldn’t know how extensive and physically demanding the work is behind the scenes.

It’s definitely rewarding when we receive photos after the fact of the kids reading with books they’ve received through distributions.

Everything is so organized when educators show up for their orders.

But they do not come that way!

Is there anything else you want to add about what you’ve learned?

I think a non-profit, as this is my first time working in it, is a different experience since everything you’re doing is going towards helping individuals rather than a corporation. In that sense, it’s very rewarding and fulfilling. It’s also inspiring how corporations are so generous with their money. None of this would be possible without our generous sponsors.

Grace Mahas
Grace Mahas