Traveling library a hit with kids

Leslie Travis, a 16-year school librarian, is cherished by her Hyde Park school community for bringing her unique spirit, creativity and passion for sewing into her everyday teaching and extracurricular activities.

Travis, 56, runs a traveling library at William H. Ray Elementary School, operates a business creating walker accessories, and in her spare time, restrings baseball gloves for players at Kenwood High School.

In 2005, she started "Mrs. Travis' Traveling Library," where kindergarteners at three different schools, including Ray, take seven new books home every Monday for the week. She began this as part of a research project to determine if parents' reading aloud to their children would improve their reading levels and test scores. Travis provides the weekly books and bags at her expense.

The book program was welcomed with much enjoyment from the students and parents, said Orit Schwartz, a parent of a first-grader at Ray.

"Every Monday, my son brought a bag with seven new books for the week and there was lots of excitement at home," Schwartz said. "It was a special experience for him, more like a prize than a part of school work."

Travis realized that third-graders needed more space than their little desks could hold for their books, so she made seat sacks. They hang over the seats on the backs of the chairs and last about a year. She sews them herself and makes new ones each year as needed.

Travis creates costumes for the Ray drama club as well. Gabriel Sheridan, a first-grade teacher at Ray, said Travis has outfitted just about every school production.

"I've always been interested in the way costumes add to an interpretation of a play," said Travis, a 2005 recipient of the National Board Certification, which recognizes teachers for outstanding achievement. "I like using fabric to tell stories and interpret literature and I love sewing with kids."

Travis recently sewed a fabulous quilt for the current principal at Ray Elementary, who is retiring after 17 years at the school, said Hannah Hayes, a PTA member and parent of a fifth-grader.

"It was a way for her to process what was happening after this long relationship [that the principal had with the school]," Hayes said. "It was so amazing how she could weave all of these amazing stories into this quilt."

Travis has been sewing for 45 years and wanted to start a business that would incorporate her love for sewing with her passion for making useful things to lift peoples' spirits.

"The first time I made a costume for an eighth-grader to wear, she put the costume on and immediately started dancing in the halls," Travis said. "It was magic.

"I've seen for years that you can do magic things with sewing. I love it! It makes me feel good and I love being able to do it."

Once her sons left for college, Travis found she had a lot of free time.

"As soon as you don't have the kids at home, you have extra energy, extra time and unbelievable organizational skills even if you're working full time," she said. "I decided to partner with another teacher at school to see if we could start a business."

Travis' original business idea was creating doll clothes. This idea soon fizzled after she realized how frivolous it would be.

"It's hard for me to live in Chicago where there are so many people who don't have $30 to buy anything for their kids to wear, and then imagine charging that much for something they don't need," Travis said.

After Sheridan went to Travis with a request to sew something for her mother who refused to use her walker because of its "ugly" appearance, the walker accessory business idea was born.

Travis sewed her first walker skirt for her friend's mother. The results were positive, as the woman laughed and smiled at the intricate dragon brocade design, Travis said. It motivated her to get up and walk again, she added.

"Putting something humorous on a walker like a skirt was a brilliant idea," said Travis, referring to Sheridan's idea. "That's a lifesaving thing because at some point when you can't walk it gets very depressing, and then you get into this cycle where you won't walk and then eventually you can never walk again."

Travis and fellow Ray school teacher Mary Cobb began Works on Walkers. They currently market their accessories that comprise skirts, pouches and purses on a Web site and take individual requests from people who buy them as gifts for elder family members. Travis designs all the fabric combinations herself and sews prototypes in her home.

Cobb handles the marketing and business side of Works on Walkers. She says Travis handles the design and manufacturing end.

"Leslie is one of the most creative people I know, and her sewing skills are legendary," Cobb said. "She is extremely generous with her time and talents and extremely community-minded."

Elanor Reiter, 75, a satisfied walker customer, received a purse and a pouch as gifts from Travis' mother, Carol. Reiter fell on a snowy day and her once-active life came to a halt.

"It was a very dispiriting thing because there were places I wanted to go, people I wanted to meet and things I wanted to do," Reiter said.

Reiter said she had no place to carry her cell phone and her newspapers. She thought the walker accessories were ingenious. "Each one is a small miracle in itself because it combines fashion and practicality," she said.

Now that she is back on her feet and doesn't need to rely on the walker, Reiter still uses the purse as an evening bag. She said she admires the workmanship and intricate design of the gifts.

"I hope that this product goes out into the market because immobility is very depressing and disturbing," Reiter said. "And what we can maintain is our sense of style and that really helps."

Travis said she decided on the walker accessory business because they serve a useful purpose. She also said there was a need for bright, entertaining products for people in nursing homes.

"These people want color and fun and entertainment and redeeming social value," Travis said. "They are not dull, boring people."

Erin Emery, director of geriatric and rehabilitation psychology at Rush University, said the walker skirts are "fantastically" adaptive. "If they maximize use and they can enjoy it and get a laugh out of it, all the better," she said.

One of Travis' extracurricular activities is coaching baseball. She found herself restringing baseball gloves for Kenwood High School, which is located across the street from her house in Hyde Park.

"I realized that baseball gloves are sewn, so I restring them," she said. "Somebody has to do it; it's kind of a dying art. One of my gloves has made it to the minor leagues, a catcher's mitt, which I love!"

Travis is a self-described academic baby.

She was born in Austin, Texas,  where her father was pursuing a post-doctorate degree  at the University of Texas. She likens her experience to that of an Army brat. "I moved every year until I was in junior high," she said.

Travis lived in several states around the U.S. as well as in Australia and Japan. In 1968, she moved to Chicago to attend the University of Chicago in the Hyde Park community, where she has lived for 35 years.

Travis has two younger brothers, one of whom lives in Hyde Park now with his family. Her parents also settled in Hyde Park. "After all of this moving, the family just all settled down together," she said.

Travis graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor's degree in general studies and humanities. Because she always wanted to be a teacher, Travis decided to pursue a master's degree in education from Roosevelt University. After receiving her degree, Travis was hesitant about jumping into teaching without any actual experience.

"I didn't think that just because I had a master's degree and a teaching certificate, that I was really ready to teach," she said.

She said she thought the best way to get the experience she needed was to become an assistant teacher. She taught for three years at the University of Chicago Laboratory School and one year at a nursery school.

When she finally decided she was ready to teach a class of her own, Travis got a chance to work in a one-room grade school. She taught for four years in a kindergarten through fifth grade one-room elementary school. She stopped teaching to focus on adopting and fostering children with her husband, David.

After four years, Travis decided to go back to teaching full time and was hired as the school librarian at Ray Elementary. She wanted to teach where her two adopted sons, Jason, 24, and Michael, 22, went to school.

"I've been there as a library teacher for 16 years now and it is a great job," she said. "I teach appreciation of literature and knowledge of how to find things and use the library."

All of her schooling and teaching experience has been in Hyde Park.

"I've only ever wanted to work where I could walk to work," Travis said. "I watched my father commute too many hours when I was growing up, so I've only applied to work here in Hyde Park."

Hayes said Travis has unique ideas and takes a real individual interest in the kids. Hayes' 10-year-old son Zach used to go to the library to check sports scores in the newspaper every day and Travis bought him a subscription to the paper for Christmas.

"I used to bug my parents for months and months to get me a Chicago Tribune subscription and Mrs. Travis handed it to me," Zach said.

Travis told Hayes it was a great way to get Zach involved in the news because if he got the paper at home, he would eventually move from sports to the human-interest stories to politics.

"She was right," Hayes said. "He collects the paper every day and talks about the mayor and he is only 10. She is very insightful."

Travis said she has been very blessed in her teaching career to have never fallen into a rut because she has been able to constantly study different things and learn with the students.

"What I like most about teaching is that kids across the board are enthusiastic about learning new things," she said.

Travis credits her hobbies in keeping the excitement in her 37-year marriage. She and her husband often go sailing together on warm Chicago weekends.

"My husband is very supportive and I'm very lucky," Travis said. "We've had different hobbies over the years, so we've had different things we could do together and we haven't stayed static. This really helps."