As the youngest of six children, Dare County native Sherry Smalley admits her family didn’t spend a lot of time reading for pleasure.

“We didn’t really read much as a family when I was young. My parents weren’t really readers either,” Smalley says.

A lot has changed since those early years.

Today, Smalley — who teaches kindergarten at First Flight Elementary School — is all about reading, and she’s made it her mission to instill a love of the written word in Dare County youth.

“I read with my own [students] and have noticed how big a difference it has made in their schooling,” says Smalley, who has been an educator for nearly 20 years. “Even if it’s just 10 minutes a day, it’s a jump start on their academic life.”

According to a 2015 study conducted by Scholastic, reading for pleasure drops off drastically for kids after age eight. Just over half of students surveyed said reading is something they enjoy, a nine percent drop from the initial survey conducted in 2010.

Experts agree that learning to enjoy reading has the greatest potential for shaping a child’s future, but the love of reading often doesn’t always happen naturally — especially in today’s world, when there are so many distractions. In many cases, reading for pleasure is an activity that must be nurtured, and the tools must be in place to make reading an appealing prospect.

Smalley understands that reading material comes in many forms and genres — from fiction and biographies to cookbooks and comic books — and without a wide selection of books, magazines and other materials available, kids will steer clear of reading for fun.

To foster that love of the written word in youth, Smalley purchased a Dare County transportation van in 2016 and converted it into a book mobile, which she dubbed “Joy Ride.”

Often, she says, “Kids don’t have access to reading materials that keep them interested in reading. They need something fresh to read... not the same ol’ book they have read 30 times.”

When a title is selected from her 1,000-plus book collection, she tells the reader: “If you like it, take it; they are free. You just have to promise me you will read them.”

Smalley says she’s combed thrift stores, yard sales and reached out to colleagues, friends and parents to grow her collection. The generosity of others is instrumental in her ability to keep the van well stocked with good reading materials, she says.

Response has been so positive that she recently expanded the program and rolls the book mobile across the North Carolina border into Virginia, traveling to events and festivals, some as far north as Charlottesville, Virginia, to spread her passion of giving.

“I was at a music festival and saw a lot of parents and their kids... they looked bored,” she says. “So, I reached out to the event planners and asked if it be okay for me to bring my van. They were very supportive, and it gave the kids something to do. They are able to take as many as they wanted.”

First Flight Elementary School Principle Drew Sawyer calls Smalley “truly an awe-inspiring teacher. Teaching is hard enough, a real 24/7 job. To have the time, effort, energy and passion to do what she does is truly inspiring,” says Sawyer, who climbed aboard the Joy Ride to get a firsthand look at the power of the bookmobile.

Fellow teacher Blair James says she admires her colleague’s “generosity in making reading a priority and spreading kindness in our community and beyond. I love her creativity in working with children.”

Smalley said the support of her peers means the world to her — and that’s why she allows herself to dream big.

“I’d like to find and deliver more local books, continue to give back to the community, recycling locally and keeping it going,” Smalley says, adding she’s in the process of establishing a social media site for Joy Ride to better keep in touch with the community.

Smalley says being able to inspire young readers and recycle books, all while filling her heart with daily joy, is the ride of a lifetime.

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