By Cynthia Robertson
If it’s the first Tuesday of the month, it’s time for Traveling Stories at Waypoint Public in North Park.
From 5 to 7 p.m., children have their own happy hours with a volunteer reading to the kids. In a back corner of the popular restaurant, located on the southwest corner of 30th Street and North Park Way, the kids have their own fenced-in play area with lots of books and volunteers to read with them.
Each time a child finishes a book, he or she receives a “book buck,” which is turned in later for a prize. The real prize for Emily Moberly, founder of the Mission Valley-based Traveling Stories, is that these kids are reading because they want to. That has been the goal all along for Moberly, a Bankers Hill resident.
At Waypoint Public on April 4, Michelle Suzuki sipped on a cola and watched Moberly read to her 3-year-old daughter Luna.
“Luna got excited when she saw all the books, especially the ‘Disney Princess’ story books,” Suzuki said.
When Moberly finished reading “Merida Is Our Babysitter” with Luna, she asked her some questions about the story, pointing out words and pictures. After Luna had answered the questions, Moberly gave her a “book buck,” which she turned in later to get a little prize doll.
In another corner, a 6-year-old boy named Sena sat with volunteer Theresa Nguyen. Together they read four books.
“He’s a very good reader. Today, Sena is reading books mostly about food,” Nguyen said.
Hezhi Naseem, field manager for Traveling Stories, was busy in another corner reading books with 8-year-old McKenna. When she gave McKenna her book bucks, Naseem got up and organized some of the books that were spread out all over the floor of the play area.
“It looks like a library exploded in here, which isn’t a bad thing,” Naseem said, laughing.
It’s a good arrangement for everyone at Waypoint Public. General Manager Justin Sins said the owner has children and got the idea to build a little play area.
“A lot of people in their 30s with children want to be able to go and enjoy happy hour, but not at Olive Garden or Chili’s. And now with Traveling Stories, they can come to here to an authentic neighborhood place, knowing that their kids are doing something fun and rewarding at the same time,” Sins said.
“We see a lot of the same people come in each month with their kids. It’s a fun energy,” he said.
Veronica Grajeda, mother of children 20 months old and 6 years old, came to Waypoint Public at the invitation of some friends.
“Kids just naturally want to be paid attention to, and they tend to make noise, and now here is a place where nobody will complain that they do. It’s a great idea,” Grajeda said.
Moberly considers the partnership a success story, too. “I love watching a reluctant reader get excited about reading for the first time,” she said.
Reading has always been important to Moberly, who considered books her best friends as she grew up. “Especially Nancy Drew!” Moberly said.
Her journey with Traveling Stories began after college when she took a job teaching English and writing for a newspaper in Honduras.
“It was the first time in my life that I lived somewhere where I didn’t have access to books. All I had to read were the three books I brought with me to Honduras,” Moberly said.
“I noticed how this impacted me, but even more than that, I noticed how it impacted my students. They had never experienced bedtime stories, or reading for fun.”
So when she went home for Christmas that first year, Moberly filled one of her suitcases with books. She brought them back to her students in Honduras and introduced them as “Ms. Moberly’s Library.” She made them read every day in class.
“At first they were reluctant, but as students found a book they connected with they began to fall in love with reading,” Moberly said.
That inspired Moberly to start Traveling Stories.
Naseem said one of the goals is to make reading fun by creating a space that caters to different types of readers.
“Traveling Stories is helping to lower illiteracy rates by working to turn reading into an indulgence rather than a chore,” Naseem said.
The organization also sponsors a StoryTent program to encourage reading at four locations in San Diego County. The top challenge for Moberly and the volunteers is having enough people to read at the StoryTent locations. Volunteers are recruited in several ways, including presentations at groups and schools, online through volunteeermatch.com, and by word of mouth.
Traveling Stories is also looking for new partners, such as companies that want a volunteer day, schools that have students needing volunteer hours or churches wanting to get involved in their community.
To learn more about Traveling Stories, go to travelingstories.org.
— Cynthia Robertson is a local freelance writer.
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.