By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okcthunder.com
For the 32,000 children in the Oklahoma City Public School system, there are 800,000 books in circulation. Over the last dozen years, the Rolling Thunder Book Bus, presented by American Fidelity, has now given out 200,000 books to children in the Oklahoma City community. In context and over the life of the program, the numbers are staggering.
“It's such a huge number. It's hard to get your head around,” said Sean McDaniel, Superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools.
A typical chilly Thursday afternoon turned into full-on pep rally inside the gymnasium at Buchanan Elementary in Oklahoma City, as the Thunder hosted a school-wide celebration to commemorate the momentous occasion. Over 400 Buchanan Bears nestled themselves in across the gym floor, the band played their instruments and the teachers amped up the anticipation. As Thunder forwards Aleksej Pokuševski and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl stepped from the hallway onto the court a collective gasp and an audible “whoa!!” bubbled up from children who were sitting patiently for the surprise.
Thunder Vice President of Community Engagement Christine Berney presented Buchanan Elementary principal Dr. Trina Resler with a framed commemorative Thunder jersey with the number 200 on the back to denote the special occasion. Inside the frame was also a signed photo by Rumble – who might be the only one in all of Oklahoma to elicit a bigger response from local students than what Pokuševski and Robinson-Earl received upon their entry on Thursday.
“It's a great experience,” said Robinson-Earl. “It’s always a good opportunity to be in the community and just giving back to everybody. There's just a lot of joy being around the kids today.”
“It shows that we care a lot about this community because they show a lot of support to us,” added Robinson-Earl. “We just like to take care of each other. It's a tight-knit community.”
The kids were clearly itching to get outside and grab their books, so the Thunder staff mobilized quickly after the ceremony and made sure kid after kid got into line and then onto the Book Bus to make their selection. Pokuševski and Robinson-Earl were there to support them, help them find a book and honor even the students’ silliest requests – like asking the players to sign their arms with permanent marker.
“It was amazing. I got to perform in front of a lot of people. I got to see the Thunder players. I loved it,” said Olivia Salas, a fourth grader who walked away with The Hunger Games, a photo with a pair of Thunder Girls and Robinson-Earl’s signature on the inside of her right forearm. “I’ll talk to my mom and dad and all my cousins all about it. It was amazing.”
Books from the Dog Man graphic novel series flew off the shelf, as did copies of the Babysitters Club. The joy from each child’s face is a familiar one given the sheer consistency and frequency of these events over the years, yet each one was fresh in their own way. The book series in stock on the bus have changed since the program began in 2011, but not the meaning behind them. While the Book Bus has worn paths into countless schools in Oklahoma City and the surrounding metro for years, these elementary school kids were seeing the impact of those tracks for the first time.
“We need our kids to read and many of them, they don't have books at home. They rely on the school district and they rely on partners like the Thunder,” said McDaniel. “This is something worth celebrating because it's that important to the life and to the trajectory for a young person. You figure out how to read, we help you and it opens all kinds of opportunities for kids as they move through the system.”
With a new iteration of the Rolling Thunder Book Bus that has greater flexibility to move longer distances, the Thunder can take the program statewide. As a result, the 200,000 book celebration isn’t anywhere close to an end point – it’s the marker of what’s possible as the program continues growing with visits up to Tulsa and all sorts of communities throughout the state.
The Rolling Thunder Book Bus is still going strong and with each successive book in the hands of a child here in Oklahoma, the state grows stronger too.