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Inspired | Grant-writing "rock star" pulls in biggest award to date for Deep River Elementary library

Deep River Elementary School has been selected as a recipient of a $5,000 grant by the Laura Bush Foundation for America’s Libraries. The Foundation chose Deep River to be among 300 schools from across 36 states to receive the grant, which is intended to help school librarians across the country update and expand their collections.

The effort at Deep River was spearheaded by their school librarian, Jo Ann Lawler, who plans to use the grant to add or replace high-interest nonfiction books to support students from Kindergarten through fifth grades.

“One of my goals in the last couple of years has been to update the nonfiction section. There are a lot of things that are out of date. Prior to a few years ago, there was nothing for STEM at all. The biographies are a little older,” described Lawler. “So, the last couple of years, with my book fair money and other grants that I've won, I've tried to work on updating the nonfiction.”

She has had plenty of success getting grants written and funded to help her in her quest. She collected a pair of Dollar General Literacy Grants, one in 2019 and the other in 2021, that have totaled $6,500 of support. She has also won the Bright Ideas Grant for the last four years, totaling almost $4,000 of grant support.

The Bush Foundation Grant is the largest Lawler has earned for Deep River, but it is hard to see her stopping any time soon. Deep River Principal Amy Lundy described her as a “grant-writing rock star”, explaining that “She writes grants and does all the background work. Then she gets picked every time.”

Lundy noted that Ms. Lawler just has a particular way of expressing the importance of the need at Deep River. “I just knew that if anybody was going to win, it would be her because she has the ability to put our needs in writing and let folks know how these funding opportunities will enhance what we have to offer our kids.”

Lawler has not always been a school librarian. Her journey in a librarian role began back in 2008 as a librarian assistant at a large Manhattan law firm in her native New York. When her family decided to move to North Carolina, she focused on being a part of the school system since she would be able to have the same schedule as her daughter and fulfill an unrealized dream of working in schools or teaching.

Since 2016, she has poured her passion, energy and expertise into the library at Deep River Elementary School. Her efforts and successes have not been a surprise to those around her.

Lundy depicted hiring Ms. Lawler like finding a “needle in a haystack,” recalling the day of their first meeting as the day she knew she wanted Ms. Lawler in the library at Deep River. “I remember after we talked that day, before she got out of the parking lot I thought, ‘You know what, I'm calling her references. I'm making sure that she doesn't get snatched up by anybody else.’” Lundy added, “I am just glad she felt the same way about us.”

“I'm just excited to do what we're doing with the kids every day,” smiled Lawler. “The fourth and fifth graders are reading chapter books. It's always something that I've read before. I always look to see the kids’ faces. Maybe something surprising happens or maybe something really sad happens, and I love to see their expressions and their faces.”

“Not every child has a passion for reading, but her desire is that everyone that comes into that library can connect with a book,” expressed Lundy. “She can get to know you, find out what you're interested in and she has a book that you will love. I think it's an amazing gift to be able to do that.”

“I absolutely love it,” expressed Lawler, describing her choice to be in an elementary school environment. “I love that I get to see the kids in kindergarten and now the ones in fifth grade that are leaving and how much they've grown and how much you end up knowing about them in that time frame. That's really special to me.”

Lawler highlighted, “It was just something about this place, and this school. This is the one that really grabbed me. I feel like our population of children could use somebody that is happy, encouraging, and cares about them. Someone that wants them to really do their best.”

Lawler has not done it all on her own. She attributes much of her success to community support for the school and its students. “It's overwhelming when you see how much this community cares about the kids really wanting to learn and read,” said Lawler. “It’s just wonderful to see the support for students from our community. That is something that really gets to me every time.”

“I feel like I push her, but she's done this on her own motivation,” supposed Lundy as she discussed Ms. Lawler’s drive to keep the library updated with the newest and most exciting titles for kids.

“To me, that is the sign of a really wonderful educator. Somebody who gets into the job, even if they've never done it before, and makes the decision that they want kids to be excited about coming to their class, to come into their space. They want to connect with them and offer them the most engaging opportunities they can,” Lundy outlined. “That's what Jo Ann does.”