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A real page turner

Thornhill thrives on delivering books to William Walker


Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Robert Thornhill and William Walker Elementary School secretary hold up some of the donated books for the after-school SHINE program.The wooden shelves in the beginning readers’ section at William Walker Elementary School library appear to be brimming with books and board games, but that doesn’t mean Caroline Narvaez wants Robert Thornhill’s regular hand-delivered donations to stop.

“We want to keep ‘em coming,” said Narvaez, secretary to school Principal Joann Hulquist. “If we run out of space here, we’ll get them in the hands of kids, and they can go home with them. We have lots of room and lots of homes for lots of books.”

Thornhill, 83, a member of the Southeast Portland-based Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1442, has delivered books since 2011 to the Title I school, many of them donated by The Book Corner, 12470 S.W. Fifth St., a used bookstore run by the Friends of the Beaverton Libraries.

“In the last year, I think I’ve made at least a dozen deliveries,” he said. “It’s usually about two boxes, sometimes many more.”

The program is an outgrowth of the VFW post’s philosophy that reading is an essential building block of learning. All children, the post members agree, regardless of their family’s financial background, should have equal access to books, games and learning tools.

For Thornhill, who served in the U.S. Navy Submarine Forces during the Korean War as well as in the Peace Corps as a Merchant Marine Academy instructor in Latvia, that mission is a natural fit.

“Students who are taught to read books in school, become readers in the home, and elsewhere,” Thornhill said. “And books don’t come out of thin air.”

The post developed the donation program based on a Portland newspaper column about a University of Tennessee research project. It showed how economically disadvantaged students performed as well as students with deeper resources after they were given books to read over the summer for three years.

The post began its book donation program with Portland’s Kelly Elementary School, but decided to expand when Sharon Vanburen, a Book Corner volunteer, told Thornhill about the need for books at William Walker. A neighbor of the school, Thornhill took it upon himself to serve the post’s book-delivery mission in his own neck of the woods.

“It’s a team effort,” he said, estimating a delivery of nearly 400 books to the school in 2013 and hundreds more since then. “We try to serve all the (Title I) elementaries, but I’m the only one in this neighborhood.”

In donating nearly 500 books to Kelly Elementary, Thornhill’s post developed a synergistic relationship with The Book Corner by buying gently used books from the volunteer-based outlet. Volunteers frequently donate books of their own. Other groups, such as

Elsie Stuhr Center staff and patrons, and members of the Veterans Motorcycle Club of Molalla, have also gotten in on the action.

“We wouldn’t be able to get this many books without The Book Corner,” Thornhill said. “Without it, we’d just be getting onesies and twosies here and there. They do a fantastic job of recycling books and getting them in use again.”

Narvaez, who typically intercepts Thornhill when he shows up with boxes or bags of books to deliver to William Walker, said the books make a huge difference for the school’s SHINE after-school program. Sponsored by Impact Northwest, SHINE is designed to help kids succeed with on-site homework assistance and academic classes in math, reading and science along with enrichment activities in art, music, dance and sports.

The program relies on books on any number of topics to fuel lessons, activities and encourage continuous learning at home.

“A lot of the (participating) parents don’t have the means to buy books in the home, with this being a Title 1 school,” Narvaez said. “It’s huge to get these books into their hands to share with families.”

Thornhill, an Oklahoma native who landed in Beaverton more than 30 years ago as a U.S. Census Bureau employee, said it means the world to him to continue to help his VFW post serve the public while helping young children with the joys of reading and learning.

“Without fail, I am greeted with good cheer and smiles,” he said of his visits to the school. “It makes me think I am somebody.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Navy veteran Robert Thornhill closes up a box of donated books that he brought to William Walker Elementary's afterschool SHINE program.

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