Reading and flying are two things often done at the same time, right? But, usually, that’s where the comparison ends. Think again. Just this past month, JetBlue, with the help of Random House Children’s Books, launched its third annual Soar with Reading program. The program offers a chance for less fortunate children to discover new and exciting places – and not necessarily by stepping on a plane.
Partnering up with Random House’s magnificent bestselling author of Magic Tree House series, Mary Pope Osborne, the Soar with Reading program hopes to change the devastating statistic that only 1 in every 300 children in low-income neighborhoods has an age-appropriate book to read. The Soar with Reading website provides an opportunity for children, along with a parent, to create and share an adventure by answering the question, “What magical places would you like to travel to with Jack, Annie, and JetBlue this summer?” Participants will be entered for a chance to win one of four $5,000 college scholarships and other great prizes. Pretty cool, huh? Answer one question and a world of opportunity opens.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down and talking to Icema Gibbs, director of corporate social responsibility at JetBlue, about this exciting program, where the inspiration came from, and how a solid plan to make it all happen came about.
I’m really excited about your program. I found out about it during a flight from Costa Rica to Orlando. I think it’s fantastic.
I’m glad that’s how you found out. That means that our message is resonating with the customers as they fly, so that’s good.
Did you form the program yourself?
We created it a few years ago as a team initiative. We’ve always done things around literacy and reading, and we wanted to present our customers with a program that we felt had some backing from educational experts. We wanted to address a few issues. One was the summer slide and, most recently, we’re really trying to wrap our arms around the statistic that only 1 in every 300 children in low-income neighborhoods has an age-appropriate book. We really feel that, in addition to encouraging children to read over the summer, we can help do something about that staggering statistic.
So, how would you describe what you do exactly, for those less fortunate to find out about it on a flight coming back from Costa Rica?
Soar with Reading is a program that allows our customers to engage in an activity that then triggers us to make a donation to a child who needs an age-appropriate book. So, if you go to our website, soarwithreading.com, you’d be able to enter a contest that allows you to be eligible for a $5000 college scholarship, free round trips on JetBlue, or a Magic Tree House prize pack. Those are all the things that you’re eligible to win, and all we ask you to do is tell us where you want to take your next adventure with Jack and Annie. It’s really simple. You can enter once a day, as many times as you’d like. It allows us to help raise not only the dollars – and you’re not doing anything; your action triggers our donation – but what it does is it really brings attention to the importance of reading, that we find reading important, but also the importance of making sure that your children use their imagination and allow their imagination to take flight. If you didn’t see that on board, I would encourage you to go to the website and learn more about the program. You can send postcards there. It’s a fun site. There are a lot of activities for kids to do. They can download a version of the little passport book that we have in all of our airports – both in English and in Spanish. We really wanted the site to be engaging. We wanted kids to have a lot to do. We know that the children that are traveling probably have books, so this is a way to encourage a generous act in your home without really having to do a lot, but your act will provide a book for a child in need.
Icema, why did you find yourself so emotionally invested in this program?
I’m interested in the program for a few reasons. One is that JetBlue has surveyed our customers, and time and time again education is an area that they would like us to focus on and would like to participate with us, so that’s one of the reasons that I’m passionate. I have a child who is seven, and I know how many books she has. In fact, just Sunday we donated about 40 books that she is no longer reading, and so if I can donate 40 books and she still has a freestanding bookshelf that is full, I just can’t wrap my arms around the fact that there are children who don’t have age-appropriate books at home; and if I can do something to move the needle just a little bit, to move that statistic, I think it’s important for us to do. This is a corporate initiative, but it would still be my passion even if it wasn’t a corporate initiative. I’m glad I can align a personal passion with a corporate initiative, but I just think that’s a staggering statistic. During our first year of the program, we worked with a school in the city and our CEO read to children and we gave out gift cards, and one of the little girls said that she had never been to a bookstore before.
Yeah. And that really touched me because my daughter can tell you which bookstore is her favorite and what she likes about the bookstores, and she knows where the children’s section is. She also knows where the Nook section is of many bookstores that we go to. So, you realize how real that statistic is and how real that problem is, and you will never close the education gap unless you work on fixing it. I’m very clear that the government can’t do it alone and there have to be public-private partnerships in order to move the needle for social change, for so many different issues; this just happens to be one of them. Public-private partnerships are the only way that we’re going to be able to close some of these gaps – whether it’s an education gap, whether it’s working on the environment. There are so many things that it is a corporation’s responsibility to help change.
Do you go to schools themselves as well and encourage reading in that way? If so, how do you do that?
Well, the other part of this program – the other fun part – is in all of our cities we encourage our crew members to get out and read to children. School’s out, as you know, because it’s summer, but in San Diego, for example, a group of school kids came to the airport and we had pilots and ground crew read to them. They had a chance to take a tour of the airport and go on board an airplane. In Newark, the team from Newark actually went to a preschool and donated some books and some backpacks and some reading materials to those schools. So, all across the JetBlue system we have our crew members going out and reading and participating in programs that also encourage not only the act of volunteerism but really helps us promote the message of why it’s important to read.
You work with an excellent children’s author, Mary Pope Osborne. Is she the only author that you work with in terms of reaching out to kids and whatnot?
She is the author that we’re working with for this particular initiative. She’s a Random House author, and Random House is our publishing partner on this particular initiative, so she is the one we’re working with this year. We’ve worked with other people. We use our T5 terminal as a platform for different authors to participate in reading activities. Last year during Black History Month, we had authors come and read to children. So, we use our terminal as a platform to work with other authors, but on this national scale she is the only author that we’re working with. She has a Magic Tree House book series, and if you go to her website you’ll see classroom adventures. She’s really philanthropic and very thoughtful in how she’s trying to help teachers have proper books and students have proper learning activities and how she can take her books and make them…she does facts books so that when you go to an adventure, when you read an adventure – a Mary Pope Osborne adventure – there is a facts book that goes along with it; so while Jack and Annie aren’t real characters, they might be researching dinosaurs and then she has a facts book about dinosaurs. So, she really is encompassing a whole learning curriculum. We thought it was important for us to align ourselves with somebody who was in that space, and her characters are perfectly recognizable for this particular initiative.
What challenges have you faced with the program in terms of implementing it, getting the word out there?
We always struggle with how to continue to help people join our plight without sounding boastful, so we always struggle with how do we tell our story without sounding self-serving. I think corporations in general struggle with that, and we’re no different…just making sure that our message comes across and clear. This is not self-serving, but we want people to have fun with it, and so you have to tell people so they can participate…but how do you do that in a way that doesn’t look like we’re trying to toot our own horn?
For those reading this interview, what else would you like them to take with them?
I think I touched on everything. The program goes until the beginning of September. We really encourage people to go to the website. It’s a lot of fun. If you haven’t done so, please do. You know, $500,000 worth of books is a really lofty goal, and we’re really hoping that our customers and interested parties will help us get there.