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A tale of love - and reading

Alyssa Pressler
505-5438/@AlyssaPressYD
  • Donna Watkins has spent 11 years as the Reading Bug in York City, encouraging students to read.
  • She collects donated books and hands them out for free at events in the area.
  • For her, giving away books and encouraging learning is a way to encourage love and acceptance.

If you live in or near York City, chances are you've met Donna Watkins.

She has friends all over and can often be found at events, important meetings or out in front of her house on North West Street, making conversation with passersby. If you've met her, though, you've probably met her as the Reading Bug, decked out in her famous bee costume, books in hand.

Donna Watkins, also known as Ms. Donna, is shown at her home in York City, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.  Watkins has worked to share the importance of reading with parents, as well as their children, for 17 years. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Watkins, commonly known as "Ms. Donna," became the Reading Bug 11 years ago when she noticed that her son's middle school friends weren't reading as much as they should. She approached the principal about the issue, and he asked her how she had made her son such an avid reader.

"I bugged him to read," she said with a laugh. "You have to bug them."

She made it her duty to remind kids of York City to read as often as they could. After the conversation with the principal, she made her first bug costume: A bumble bee with plastic bugs all over the front that says "I will bug you to read." She has five other costumes, which include a butterfly, cockroach and spider.

Watkins has lived in York City her entire life. She proudly boasts that she was born on Duke Street. While she did travel a bit during college, she returned to take care of her mother, who was sick.

Watkins has had her fair share of hardships. Her mother, husband and father passed away in a short span of time. She has been kicked out of her house with little to no notice. At one point, she was close to being homeless had it not been for the kindness of a stranger who became her landlord and friend.

A lack of literacy, housing insecurity and death are just some of the many issues young children in York City can face. In 2015, the last year data is available on the U.S. Census website, the poverty level for York City was 37.3 percent, among the highest in the county.  A majority of those who live in the city are minorities.

Donna Watkins, also known as Ms. Donna, shows her butterfly costume as she talks about her passion for encouraging children to read, at her home in York City, Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.  Watkins has worked to share the importance of reading with parents, as well as their children, for 17 years. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Watkins has walked in those shoes, which has been her inspiration.

"You know why I'm so compassionate for people?" she asked. "Because I know how it feels."

She loves taking the time to understand someone and see their perspective, which is why she believes Black History Month, honored each February, is particularly important. She said the U.S. is one giant melting pot, and that's something to be celebrated.

For her, the best way to celebrate is through learning and books. Children and people of all ages dealing with difficult things in their lives — be it poverty, racism, housing insecurity, food insecurity or typical issues with friends — can escape through books.

This is why you'll see her at most community events, such as West York's Halloween Celebration or York City's first day of school celebration, dressed like a bug, laughing with children, playing games and encouraging them to take one of her many free books.

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"I think this is what I was born to do," she said.

She's typically out and about when the weather is nice. As she says, bugs don't come out too often in the winter. When she's not at a community event, she often camps out at Central Market. Sometimes she goes to the mall. Other times she sits on her front porch with a giant string spiderweb full of books on her front lawn for kids who walk by.

She's still busy in the winter, going through the many boxes of donated books that are left on her front porch or trying to round up funding for her programs. She makes personalized posters for students she wants to inspire. She'll craft different aspects of her costumes, such as a Reading Bug fan or antennas with butterflies on the ends.

She's not just an activist when it comes to education and reading. She has also attended important meetings dressed as a bee to "bug" local lawmakers about issues such as housing insecurity and food insecurity. She estimates she has more than 30 awards for her work in the community, which are proudly on display in her home.

She also plans. Watkins has big dreams to continue her mission of getting more students of all ages to read more, including opening a center where people can easily find her in the future if she can find sponsors. She also dreams of sitting under a tree in Africa, reading books and relaxing in the shade.

Her biggest dream, though, is to see people love each other. In her 57 years of living, she's seen a lot of change in York City. There's more diversity now — she remembers a time when minority families couldn't live on Newberry Street, one of the places she's lived in the city. This work needs to continue, there needs to be more unity and people need to love rather than hate, Watkins said.

"I want people to get along more and love each other," she said. "It takes more energy to hate than to love."