Chris Coulstring announced it, his second-grade arms surrounding his favorite paperbacks.
"I own these books now," he said.
Jamming the books into a donated, blue backpack, Coulstring and 42 other Hudson Elementary School students stayed close to their River Ridge High School Teaching Academy buddies. They all were participants in Books by the Beach on April 13, an after-school educational walking tour and philanthropy project organized by River Ridge freshman Raynee Meek, 14.
Meek got the idea for the project while working with Hudson children. She heard them talk about never visiting the beach, even though they live a scarce few miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Meek dreamed of a project that she and other Teaching Academy students could organize. The academy opened in 2016 for students who plan teaching professions.
The project took the help of community services, volunteers, a donation of 1,200 books and months of planning. Assisting Meek were Teaching Academy senior Kaylyn Burr and freshman Brianna Marney.
The goal of the walk was to help children learn about the Hudson community, meet community leaders and gather books for summer reading.
Beth Hess, a River Ridge teacher and advisor for the Teaching Academy, approved Meek’s plans, realizing hands-on activities like this are good training for future educators.
Finally last week, a long line of students began the Books By the Beach trek from Hudson Elementary to Hudson Beach. Kindergarten through fifth grade students were selected by teachers and administrators. Meek created groups of 10 children, with 80 Teaching Academy students as group leaders.
Safety rules came first.
"Stop and look both ways before crossing the street," Meek directed students.
Watching from nearby was River Ridge principal Dr. Toni Zetzsche and assistant principal Jessica Meek, Hudson Elementary principal Dawn Scilex walked alongside the group, as did several Hudson Elementary teachers.
Teaching Academy students created hop-scotch games and wrote directions with sidewalk chalk. Stations along the way allowed students to hear presentations and gather books.
The first stop was the Healthy Families Pasco-Hernando office where Academy students presented bike safety tips. Tables laden with books in reading-level order allowed kids to select favorites.
"When Raynee asked me about using Healthy Families as a stopping point, she told me her idea for the walk, and I wondered how she could do this. Later, as she told me more, I saw her plan and knew she would make it work," said Becky Bennet, Healthy Families director for development, who welcomed hikers with Healthy Families president Rick Hess.
The Malacos family, owners of Inn-on-the-Gulf, provided a stopping point at Hudson Marina where Damon Pulaski, officer specialist for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, gave pointers on water safety.
At Hudson Beach pavilion, the Malacos provided cold lemonade, and more tables were packed with books by children’s authors Judy Bloom, Sharon Creech, Will Hobbs and R.L. Stein.
Books were donated by many, including Pasco County Retired School Employees, who contributed several dozen. Members of the local chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, an organization for women educators, also helped.
"I got a great book," said third-grader Aurora Bianco, 9, showing off In the Wild, a book about animals. She asked if she could take home a book to her 4-year-old brother and chose Three Blind Mice and the Christmas Surprise.
High-schoolers gathered with their young charges for a group photo before starting back. "Ask Raynee, this is her project," was a frequent reply to a Teaching Academy student’s question.
At the last stop, tired students enjoyed ice cream donated by Alex Mullore, owner of Hudson Beach Ice Cream Parlor. Back at Hudson Elementary, parents lined up in cars to collect children, hear their stories and see the summer reading books.
"I had one scholar tell me, ‘thank you so much Ms. Raynee. Now I will have enough books to read for one hour every night this summer,’" Raynee Meek said. "My heart is beyond full after this amazing experience."