York's 'Reading Bug' injured, accelerating plans for learning center

Junior Gonzalez
York Dispatch

"The Reading Bug," an advocate for literacy who has been well known to York City grade-schoolers for more than a decade, was recently injured while preparing for an event.

As Donna Watkins recovers, however, a plan is taking shape that would eliminate the need for the retired preschool teacher to haul stacks of books to children.

Some day soon, she hopes, the children will come to her.

Donna Watkins, the "Reading Bug" sits, Wednesday, June 21, 2017,  next to a stack of books she tried to move recently and hurt her back at her York city home. An online fundraiser is underway to help Watkins create a learning center for families. Bill Kalina photo

Watkins, 57, recently hurt her back while moving piles of books from her York City apartment for a festival that took place at Kiwanis Lake.

“I’ve been doing this since ‘06,” she said. “I should’ve known better.”

Watkins is recovering in her York City home after a trip to the hospital, but the ordeal has accelerated a plan she has had for years: A physical location to spread literacy in York City.

“In my heart of hearts, I’ve dreamt of having a facility,” she said.

Spring Garden Township resident Christina Kauffman is tackling the fundraising after learning about Watkins' injury on Facebook.

Kauffman said she asked Watkins what she could do to help.

"She said the only thing that would help at this point is if she had somewhere to put these books instead of having to lug them out all the time," Kauffman said. Watkins does not drive.

Kauffman said she felt inspired to start an online fundraiser because of Watkins' dedication to literacy in the community.

"What (Watkins) does is really selfless," she said.

Lukey Bugs: Watkins already has a name for the learning center: Lukey Bugs, which stands for “love you, keep educating yourself, bringing up grades.”

Donna Watkins, the "Reading Bug" stands with the help of a cane at her York City home Wednesday, June 21, 2017. She recently hurt her back moving books. An online fundraiser is underway to help Watkins create a learning center for families. Bill Kalina photo

Watkins said having a physical location would alleviate the hoops she currently goes through to transport herself and her books to events across the city.

She said she would love to have the location in downtown York City, where students can walk to from nearby schools.

Watkins said the learning center would have a library, a reading area and an arts center, as well as a music room.

One thing she said would be notably absent from the facility: computers. Aside from a computer in the main office, “I don’t want computers there,” she said.

Watkins said the internet has not helped students with regard to literacy but has instead become more of a distraction.

“It uses less of the mind,” she said of using the internet. “It doesn’t take anything to push a button.” 

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 said books are the ultimate sources of knowledge, and she loves everything about them.

“I like the feel of the paper, the smell, the binding, the colors,” she said. “Everything.”

‘The Reading Bug’: Watkins has been known across York City schools as The Reading Bug since she came up with the idea at her son’s bedside in 2006.

At the time, she spoke with administrators at the then-Edgar Fahs Smith Middle School about the reading levels for students and heard they were below grade level.

“This is crazy, we’ve got to do something,” she recalls saying at the time. So she did something.

Watkins said she always laid a book on her son’s bed for him to read at night. Even when he didn’t want to read, she bugged him to do so.

“I thought, ‘Man, I should do this on a bigger scale,’” she said.

After sewing an outfit that resembled a bee, she looked for other outfits that would "bug" students. She now sports a butterfly, ladybug or cockroach outfit at literacy events.

Long after her son went through the school system, Watkins has kept at it — still regularly attending city events, handing out books and encouraging children to read.

“I’m retired, I have to do something,” she said.

Help and hope: Kauffman's campaign set a goal of $12,000 to cover the cost of a storefront lease for a year in the city. She said she hopes the fully funded first year will give Watkins and other volunteers time to start a nonprofit organization.

"She’s never asked for anything. Now she’s in the position where she actually does need help," Kauffman said of Watkins.

To donate, visit the “Bug Lady Down” GoFundMe page at https://www.gofundme.com/bug-lady-down-help-donna-watkins