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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker signs and gives a book to Melissa Portillo, right, outside the St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen in Salt Lake City, Tuesday, April 23, 2013, in commemoration of World Book Night.
When you see a homeless person reading somewhere in the library or on the street, applaud them because they, too, have dreams and goals and sometimes they accomplish them because of the written word. —Pamela Atkinson

SALT LAKE CITY — Michael Avila says he is one of those kids whom nobody had the time to teach.

“I was never taught to read or write, but I’m really trying to learn,” he said, emerging from a crowd outside of St. Vincent de Paul soup kitchen Tuesday carrying a new copy of “Fahrenheit 451.”

Avila was one of many in the homeless community catching the infectiousness of reading as Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker, Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank, community advocate Pamela Atkinson and other community members distributed books for World Book Night.

“For many of us, a particular book has helped shape who we are and inspired the paths we have taken,” Becker said. “Books can be powerful. And books not only have the ability to kindle reflection, wonder and action, they also serve as a connection from one person to another.”

Tens of thousands of people across the world distributed paperbacks to light readers and non-readers in their communities Tuesday in celebration of World Book Night, an annual celebration held on William Shakespeare’s birthday. The tradition began in the U.K. in 2011, and was first celebrated in the U.S. in 2012.

Those who are homeless have a lot of time on their hands and many use that time to read, said Dennis Kelsch, director of basic needs services for Catholic Community Services.

“The Weigand Center has opened a library last month and is collecting books,” Kelsch said. “They fly off the shelves. They might not read to a high efficiency level or proficiency, but they do read.”

Kelsch said the response to Tuesday’s book donation was moving.

“When the mayor walked up to people, they took the books and books on the table are going quickly,” he said. “To have such resources support, I think it’s great. It enhances the one quality in their life that I think everyone needs, which is positive reinforcement.”

For Avila, having access to books is a good motivation for learning. “I am excited to learn how to read. Reading will help me to learn how to do paperwork. That’s the goal.”

Salt Lake leaders chose to participate in World Book Night through the city's Homeless Outreach Services Team, a partnership designed to connect service providers with people experiencing homelessness in the community. Through the generosity of thousands of local book givers, booksellers, librarians and financial supporters, books were distributed to various service sites, including the Weigand Day Center, Fourth Street Clinic, the Homeless Youth Resource Center, Palmer Court and the Sunrise Metro and Freedom Landing Apartments.

World Book Night is not just about giving out books, Becker said. “It’s about people, communities and connections. It’s about reaching out to others and touching lives and sharing stories.”

Community advocate Pamela Atkinson spoke fondly of her first exposure to books.

“I found this incredible librarian at a library just outside of London and she not only encouraged me to go to the library to do my homework, but she led me into all kinds of adventures with different books,” Atkinson said. “What I found with my homeless and low-income friends was that when we introduce them to reading through a variety of books that we donated, they get incredibly excited. In fact, I had to remind them sometimes that there are some other things in this world beyond reading.”

Atkinson said books can be “words to the soul.”

“When you see a homeless person reading somewhere in the library or on the street, applaud them because they, too, have dreams and goals and sometimes they accomplish them because of the written word,” she said.

Betsy Burton, co-owner of The King’s English Bookshop, said distributing the books helps build bridges.

“We can be so closed off and we don’t think about other people and the plight they’re in,” Burton said. “If you are in a place that you don’t usually inhabit, talking to people that you don’t usually talk to, reaching out to them, giving them something, that really does provide a bridge.”

More than a bridge, books can be a way into another world, Burton said. “These people can see the world from different angles, broaden their horizons, see new possibilities.”

That, Burton said, is the hope.

Email: rlowry@deseretnews.com