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Judging from the tall stacks of boxed books – some piles nearly touching the ceiling of a large storage room at the Central Library – the 19th annual Books for Kids literacy drive is off to a strong start.

Since 1995, more than 2 million donated books have been distributed to children throughout the Buffalo area, according to organizers who kicked off the drive Tuesday at the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library downtown.

The book bank at the library is often called Santa’s Workshop by volunteers who sort the thousands of volumes into age- and content-appropriate groups.

Last year, 77,384 books were distributed through the cooperative efforts of Project Flight, SUNY Buffalo State and The Buffalo News, explained English Professor Emeritus Elizabeth J. “Betty” Cappella.

“These books touch lives. We can travel the world with books,” said Cappella, who with fellow Buffalo State English Professor Geraldine E. Bard co-founded Project Flight, a not-for-profit organization devoted to promoting literacy. The drive, which runs throughout April, was launched by then-News reporter Rose Ciotta, Cappella and Bard.

Also participating in the drive are WGRZ-TV Channel 2, Wegmans, the United Way of Buffalo & Erie County, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library and the Junior League of Buffalo.

“Reading is our passion. The written word is still the most compelling tool for telling stories,” said Brian J. Connolly, managing editor of The News, who joined more than 25 people at the coffee reception to kick off the book drive.

Cappella, whose Italian ancestors immigrated in 1906, also spoke about the power of words.

“The legacy of literacy is democracy and freedom,” Cappella said. “Books empower children who may not otherwise have a chance.”

The working-class families served by My Precious Angels Childcare on Bailey Avenue are a prime example. Founded in 2004, the center is one of 90 agencies helped through Project Flight, according to Bard.

In past years, Project Flight has supplied a Braille library for D’Youville Porter Campus School, bolstered summer reading programs at Cradle Beach Camp and stocked Head Start/Early Head Start programs in community centers on the Lower West Side.

Organizers have identified a need for books to serve preschool, teen and culturally diverse readers. High schools including Nardin Academy and Mount St. Mary Academy are also coordinating book-collection efforts.

The volunteers who gather, box, transport, load and unload the books are critical to the distribution efforts, Cappella said.

Donations of new books may be dropped off at Wegmans stores in Erie and Niagara counties.

The drive also hopes to raise $17,000 in cash donations to purchase special-needs books for bilingual families and handicapped children.

Checks can be made payable to Books for Kids/Project Flight and mailed c/o The Buffalo News, One News Plaza, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240. To donate online, visit www.buffalo.com/booksforkids.

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com