Marching gaily down Main Street in the chilly twilight of Ashland’s Festival of Light on Friday evening, students of Special Education at Southern Oregon University passed out 7,000 children’s books to the town’s wee ones, lifting spirits with a gift of education — and wonder. 

Working out of a float they made — a child’s wagon with Radio Flyer painted on it — Professor Emeritus Gregg Gassman and his students sought to turn Black Friday into a non-counsumerist delight that would fire the imaginations of toddlers and grade schoolers.

Getting ready for the parade at 5 p.m., students said they didn’t want to diss iPhones and computer games, but books, not screens, are what train the mind for higher thought and creativity.

“It’s incredibly important to read,” said special ed senior Chelsea Kays. “We love children and it’s so important for them to get books and open their imaginations, so they can grow into creative adults. I love handing out these books. It’s so much fun and also an opportunity to connect with them and encourage them to expand their minds.”

Gassman says graduate students in 2002 came up with the idea for gifting books to the town’s young ones, in Santa’s train.

Two dozen students start in summer and spend months gathering books, buying them at yard sales, asking for donations to buy books, doing fundraising events and getting book donations from Bloomsbury, WalMart, Fred Meyer and Barnes & Noble. The Willamette Writer’s Project in Salem also gives them grants for books. 

“It’s a way to give back to the community and promote reading at the same time,” says Gassman. “We want children to read. We want families to read.”

Children along the parade route were clearly delighted when the grad students and their children approached and handed them books.

“We want kids to read more and it’s great to combine it with the spirit of giving in the season,” said student Gladys De Leon.

“It’s a fun way to get kids in the community excited about reading,” says student Bekka Holmquist. “Reading is such an important way to experience different parts of the world so you are more creative and successful in later life.”

Gassman retired in September and, as an emeritus professor, teaches the master’s in education program, leading to a teaching license with an endorsement in special education.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.