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80 books disappear from classroom that sheltered Irma evacuees

DUNEDIN — When Martha Hereford-Cothron returned to her classroom at Dunedin Highland Middle School on Monday morning, her heart sank as her eyes scanned the room and landed on a white bookshelf, empty except for a broken DVD player and a thermal blanket.

The school had been used as an evacuation shelter during Hurricane Irma, and the 80 books, some signed by Cothron's favorite authors, were missing. Also gone were several board games.

"I looked at one of my bookshelves and I was like 'Oh my God, where are my books?" she said Tuesday. "I'm very attached to books, especially to my signed books. I was a little hurt and shocked. Who steals books? They were like my babies."

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As part of a program called Read 180, Cothron teaches classes to sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who test in the lower 25 percent of the school's readers.

"It's hard enough for me to get them to love reading," she said. "They're trying to resettle and get back to normal and they expect their classroom to be a safe place. They were expecting to come back and have some normalcy."

But she tried to spin it as positively as she could to her students.

"Somebody needed something, and God let us provide," she said. "Maybe them taking the books was a comfort to them. I don't care who took them but I hope it was able to comfort them when they were sitting in a shelter."

Cothron also heard about a deal being offered by Scholastic, the education media company, so she handed out catalogues and asked her students to circle the books they were interested in. She planned to buy them herself.

Her students started coming up with their own suggestions. Maybe they could bring their own books from home or start a fundraiser. A friend recommended she ask for help on social media.

Cothron made a wish list on Amazon that allowed people to order books and send them directly to the school. She also runs a book blog, Diva Does 4 Good, and tagged a few of the authors she's met in her post, hoping they might donate a few books.

The post was shared more than 1,300 times in less than one day. People commented from across the country, and told her books were on the way. Some messaged, asking her to add more books to the wish list.

Cothron said she and her husband spent Monday night researching young adult book blogs to look for diverse books teens are interested in and added them. So far, she said, more than 100 books have been ordered through the wish list and sent to the school.

One author, PC Cast, the author of the young adult series Marked, contacted her and asked if she needed books translated in Spanish and Arabic, something Cothron said she needed but didn't previously have.

Olivia Wilson, head of youth services at Dunedin Public Library, said the Friends of the Library group planned to donate and would wait to see what Cothron might still need.

"It was heart-breaking to see the books not returned," Wilson said.

Cothron said she heard other teachers had items stolen or damaged, including computers and a collection of globes.

Lisa Wolf, a spokeswoman for Pinellas County Schools, said Tuesday the district "is working with staff to determine if any items are missing from their schools and/or classrooms." She said the district will locate and, if necessary, replace any missing items.

Cothron said she was overwhelmed by the response from the community.

"We're going to outfit the classroom and make sure every kid gets to go home with a book too," she said.

"Books can be replaced, but lives can't. Whoever took our books, I hope they're reading them. I hope they're passing them on to a child or adult who needs help reading or loves reading."

Times Staff Writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report. Contact Divya Kumar at [email protected] Follow @divyadivyadivya.

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