ELGIN — The depression Emily Bicknese saw when she visited the nursing home residents in her hometown weighed on the teen. She’d spend time with the elderly residents, hoping to brighten their day, but she’d often come home in tears.
One of the residents, Mrs. K, told me she was sad she couldn’t give back to the world,” Bicknese, 18, says. “She told me she felt like a burden, that she hated not feeling needed anymore.”
Wanting to help, Bicknese created the “Grandma, Will You Read to Me?” program, bringing children’s books to nursing home and care center residents and recording them as they read the stories aloud. She then edited the recordings, burned them to a CD and mailed them with the books to orphanages around the globe.
“One of my favorite memories as a child was being read to by my grandparents,” she says. “With this project, the adults were able to experience gratification from helping a child overseas and the children received something personal created just for them.”
Bicknese committed the summer of 2011 to “Grandma, Will You Read to Me?” She hoped to create at least 20 recordings, but ended up sending more than 60 books and CDs to orphanages in Nigeria, Myanmar, India and Kenya.
Last month, Bicknese was named one of two Iowa winners of the Kohl’s Cares Scholarship Program, receiving a $1,000 scholarship for “Grandma, Will You Read to Me?”
Bicknese also received a $1,000 scholarship from the Herbert Hoover Uncommon Student Award for her program, but she credits her community for making “Grandma, Will You Read to Me?” a success.
“I had people donating books or giving me money to help pay for shipping,” she says. “The local newspaper wrote a story and I had people calling me, asking if they could read a book, too.”
Not that the project didn’t have its challenges. Locating orphanages to ship the books and CDs to was a challenge as was pairing volunteer grandparents with the right children’s book. Bicknese also had to make sure the books could be understood by children learning to speak English.
“A lot of the directors told me that the children are learning English, so the books would be perfect for them,” Bicknese says.
Not every resident wanted to participate. Some only wanted to talk. Bicknese was happy to oblige.
“It touches me to the point to tears to know she has such a heart for the elderly and the orphans,” says Bicknese’s mother, Karla Bicknese.“I look at it like two bookends, two different life spans on two different sides of the world, and this project brought them together, with the books in the middle,” says Bicknese’s father, Aaron Bicknese
Bicknese will be a freshman at University of Northern Iowa this fall, with plans to study music education. She doesn’t know what the future holds for “Grandma, Will You Read to Me?” but says her home-school group, SHINE (Students Homeschooled in Iowa’s North East), has localized it.
“This past year, SHINE recorded books for single moms in the community,” Bicknese says.