MANATEE -- On Thursday, Southeast High School students Becky O'Brien, Armando Cruz Vasquez and Lincoln Hulbert brought about 500 books to the Manatee County Juvenile Detention Center at 1803 5th St. W.
The center is a 42-bed holding facility for juveniles age 8 to 18 who have gotten into trouble. They stay from one to 21 days. Since July 1, 2013, more than 800 youths have passed through, all required to maintain their Manatee County School District classwork using computers with help from the center's teachers.
Getting troubled students to want to read has always been a challenge, said Rob Lyons, the school's Exceptional Student Education teacher.
Lyons said he noticed one day center students were gobbling up "The Bluford Series," a collection of young adult novels.
Jessica Spencer of the Manatee County Youth Commission heard about Lyons' discovery and got word to Southeast High School where it hit the ears of O'Brien, 18, a senior headed to St. John's College in Annapolis, Md., who wants to be a teacher.
O'Brien, Cruz Vasquez, Hulbert and Dorothea Hopkins organized a book drive from March through May and collected a terrific selection of young adult fiction, including "The Hunger Games" trilogy by Suzanne Collins, "Divergent" by Veronica Roth, "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini and the "Harry Potter" series by J.K. Rowling.
Detention center teachers, aides, transition specialists, its grant writer and even the facility chief all gathered Thursday to express their gratitude for the drive.
"We do have 1,000 to 1,500 books in our library for the students, but most of those books are donated by people who don't want them anymore," said Frank Gargett, chief of administrative services. "The unique thing about what you did is that you brought us books our students' peers would read."
O'Brien and her team received a certificate of appreciation from Lyons , grant writer Brigid Stockner, teacher aide Joyce Gargar, teacher assistant Stephanie Washington, transition specialists Pace Edwards and George Schrier and Gargett.
Hopkins made 10 colorful boxes for the classrooms of 10 English teachers during the book drive.
Teacher Cathy Strate was book drive scoring leader with roughly 400 tomes coming from her students.
"We're all seniors in the international baccalaureate program," O'Brien said. "Now we need to find some juniors to do this again next year."