Airplanes and young imaginations weren’t the only things taking flight during The Believe Projects®, recent Woodland Elementary literacy lab unveiling in Jennings, Missouri.
Something else soaring to sky-high levels? Aja La’Starr’s pride.
“I’ve been to every single ribbon cutting, but this one felt different in a number of ways,” said La’Starr, an author and native of Jennings, just north of St. Louis. “This was home. I felt like life had come full circle. It was so open – the art, the vibrancy, the colors. It’s a feeling you get when you step into any Believe Project, but especially so with this one. It felt inviting.”
Regions Bank is a community partner of St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature, an organization empowering children to become confident and capable readers by the time they reach the third grade. The bank co-sponsored the Woodland Elementary literacy lab, the nonprofit’s tenth Believe Project, to celebrate its ten-year relationship with the Jennings School District.
“Our team members have personally connected with the Jennings students through mentoring and by personally donating classroom supplies,” said Scott Hartwig, Commercial Banking leader and Greater St. Louis market executive for Regions Bank in St. Louis. “By investing in The Believe Projects at Woodland, we can inspire students to discover new literary characters that look like them. Far more importantly, we can play a role in inspiring young readers to dream even bigger and achieve anything they desire.”
La’Starr met St. Louis Black Authors of Children’s Literature founder and executive director Julius B. Anthony in 2014, while networking at African American book fairs with her sister, also an author.
I just knew from that moment on this was more than a book. It’s a life mantraAja La’Starr
“Julius is intentional, passionate, spiritual, committed and innovative,” she said.
In 2018, when La’Starr wrote her first children’s book, “Rock What You Got,” the collaboration between the two deepened.
“Being part of the St. Louis Black Authors Collective has opened up a lot of opportunities to go into the schools and connect with nonprofits,” she said. “The Black Authors Collective partnership has helped my book get a lot of promotion.”
Encouraging readers – young and older – to celebrate themselves just as they are is a key message in the pages of “Rock What You Got.”
“This began as a poem,” La’Starr explained. “I don’t know when I wrote it, I don’t know why I wrote it. But it’s all about loving yourself and embracing your unique qualities. It teaches about being empathetic to help eliminate bullying. It also shares that something you might not like about yourself, someone else might wish they had. It was a message I was saying to myself and for other adults.”
That message of self-acceptance is something that’s also taken off like a rocket.
“The impact that I’ve seen this book have on anyone – children and adults alike – the impact it’s had on me when I would read this book to children, I just knew from that moment on this was more than a book. It’s a life mantra. It’s a message that should be translated across the world. It’s a message everyone needs to know. The earlier we can plant that seed into young people, the better we’ll all be.”
Literacy is important for everyone, but it’s also important to recognize there are certain demographics that don’t always have access to books.
Those seeds were planted in La’Starr and her sister by Maya Angelou and their aunt, also a poet. Today, La’Starr and her sister are committed to doing the same in others – not only with the children in Jennings, but by also working with fellow authors. They’ve helped 30 writers publish their books.
“When we were children, my aunt Alice planted the seed in us that writing was something we could do someday,” she said. “What excites me is that we can do that for someone else. I’m a product of Jennings. So, if I can do it, you can do it. Being a Black author in this community is something that I’m doing that will be a seed to a younger person to grow. I may not see it, but I know I can be a manifestation of it.”
Manifesting access to books is also a priority for La’Starr. She has donated copies of “Rock What You Got” to all 10 Believe Projects literacy labs. The Woodland Elementary gift was especially meaningful given she was a long-term substitute teacher there years ago.
“Literacy is important for everyone, but it’s also important to recognize there are certain demographics that don’t always have access to books,” she explained. “It can be out of sight, out of mind. It’s important to have The Believe Projects in urban schools. I have more hope in the beauty that lies ahead for these students in 30 years because The Believe Project is here.”
The beauty La’Starr noticed the day of the ribbon cutting involved the children – featured in the literacy lab’s artwork and through the choral and spoken-word performances by Woodland students.
“Being from Jennings, it felt good. It felt peaceful, it felt honorable, it felt special, it felt purposeful. It was a homecoming,” she said. “It was just so important getting the kids involved in the program. The kids are going to be the ambassadors that make this work. They are ultimately the ones who have to be sold on it, the way it’s intentionally crafted and designed. If you look at the walls, you see yourself. It’s someone who looks like you.”
Yes, La’Starr provided a gift to Woodland Elementary for the ribbon cutting through her work. But she recognizes she received a far greater gift in return.
“Knowing there are going to be countless little people like me, when I was their age, that will have an opportunity to experience my book and know they can do whatever too is incredibly affirming,” she said. “I want to be what someone saw in me.”
“A Delay Is Not a Denial”
The idea of launching The Believe Projects literacy lab at Woodland Elementary began back in 2017. The unveiling involved a six-year wait due to the pandemic and additional factors. But Superintendent of Jennings’ School District, Dr. Paula Knight, whose childhood photo is featured in the Woodland mural seen below, was never deterred, sharing, “A delay is not a denial.”
Step inside The Believe Projects’ warm and inviting space: