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Charity vehicle

Watch out, OKC schools. The Rolling Thunder Book Bus just might stop by with thousands of books — and maybe an NBA star or two.

Matt Carney March 28th, 2012

A first-grader named Benjamin clutched a bright yellow book to his chest as he returned to the gym of his school, Santa Fe South Elementary in southwest Oklahoma City.

Lazar Hayward with students at Santa Fe South Elementary
Credits: Shannon Cornman

“What’d you pick out there, Curious George?” asked assistant teacher Eli Argot.

Benjamin nodded in the affirmative, presenting his very own copy of an installment in the popular children’s series, Curious George Visits the Zoo. The spacious gym echoed the delight of Benjamin and 74 other lucky students who were able to pick out a book and meet a real-life NBA player. The gym filled with kids reading their new treasures aloud, sounding out the words and sharing the books with their friends.

This scene is just one of hundreds that the Rolling Thunder Book Bus has created since its establishment in 2009 as the Oklahoma City basketball team’s flagship charity vehicle, both literally and metaphorically.

As of last week, the bus has dispensed 49,595 books on more than 620 visits to schools, community organizations and special events, all at no cost to the recipients. And while players, Thunder Girls and Rumble can’t come along for every visit, the bus still makes four or five stops a week.

Booking it 

“How many books are in the home is the No. 1 indicator of whether or not a kid will go to college,” said Ronald Grant, who works for Oklahoma City Public Schools and whose son, Ronnie, is in kindergarten at Santa Fe South. “Some of these kids don’t have that.”

The book bus’ visit to Santa Fe South came in January. It parked just outside the gym, where Oklahoma City Thunder forward Lazar Hayward autographed books and body parts (wrists and cheeks, primarily), his legs splayed out across the imitation hardwood court. “Que lindo piso,” one girl said, admiring the Thunder logo painted on the floor.

“Most of our kids are Hispanic and a lot of them don’t have books at home,” said Santa Fe South Principal Kimberly Figueroa. “For them to be able to go and pick out a new, free book … they’re so appreciative.”

Star power

The atmosphere was much the same several weeks later at Central Oak Elementary in southeast Oklahoma City. This time Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook was on board, patiently helping kids choose from some 3,000 titles the bus has stocked at any given time. “What kind of books you like? Animals? Sports?” he asked one boy.

Westbrook said he was enjoying his first experience with the book bus. “Little kids like to read, and they get on a bus full of books and it’s exciting.”

Russell Westbrook at Crooked Oak Elementary
Credits: Shannon Cornman

Of course, picking out a book with the help of an NBA star probably accounted for a bit of the excitement, too.

Debbie Williams, community relations coordinator for the Thunder, helped build the book bus program, which was modeled after a similar one the New Orleans Hornets employed during its two seasons in Oklahoma City. “About two months ago I received a call from [the Hornets’] vice president of events and entertainment,” Williams said. “He wanted to pick my brain to find out what we were doing with our book bus in Oklahoma City.”

The books are acquired in bulk at discounted rates from Scholastic, thanks in part to a sponsorship from American Fidelity Assurance, whose representative, Roy Bishop, comes to as many bus visits as he can.

“Outside of school, these kids aren’t going to have many opportunities to read books,” Bishop said. “We’re proud to help provide them, and to do it in a way that gets them excited to read."

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