Almost every summer since the third grade, Campbell Hester, 13, has read 200 books as part of the Newark Public Library’s summer reading program.
She has read about the fight for civil rights in the last century, read about strong women like Mother Theresa and Helen Keller, and dipped into the world of Forks, Wash. where the "Twilight" vampires series is set.
And because of her passion for books and her love for the library, Hester was invited to give a speech earlier this month at the library’s annual fundraising gala, which saw the institution raise approximately $165,000.
"Books do not discriminate against the reader. They do not ask the color of your skin, your religious beliefs or financial status. They simply ask to be opened and enjoyed. And they are there for everyone," she said during her speech. "Someday I hope to become a published author. It would be amazing to walk into my local library and see my book on the shelf."
The Nov. 3 event, dubbed "Booked for the Evening," was held at Belleville dining hall Nanina's in the Park and featured not just longtime library patrons such as Campbell, but also Newark elected officials like Central Ward Councilman Darrin S. Sharif, library activists such as Claudine Royal and her daughter Ayo Peterson, and representatives from the city’s best known businesses and institutions, including Prudential Financial and Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
The gala attracted about 220 people, who had either paid anywhere from $20,000 to $250 to attend, said Joseph Casale, the library's assistant director of finance and development.
People mingled in the main hall and foyer of the building as they snacked on appetizers and sipped drinks from the martini and wine bar. Later, they went to main dining room for a sit down dinner and speeches.
"We are very impressed, very enthused about the support in this economic climate. It shows how much people value the Newark Public Library," he said.
The celebratory night was a contrast to the dreary news that has plagued the library in the last couple of years - from steep budget cuts to furloughs.
It was echoed in a few speeches during the event.
"It has been noted by so many people that we are living in interesting times," said Wilma Grey, the library director, during her speech.
Despite the cuts, Grey said, there have been increases in book borrowing and membership rolls over the last several years.
"Our staff has proved their dedication time and time again," said Timothy J. Crist, president of the library’s board of trustees. "Our mission is to serve the public to encourage literacy in all its forms."
The event also recognized several individuals for their contributions to the library. Carol Duncan, an art historian, was singled out for her donations that have funded cultural events at the library. Kurt Landsberger, a prominent New Jersey businessman, was recognized for his donation of 2,000 postcards, most of them focusing on Essex County landmarks, and for funding educational activities.
Victor Parsonnet and his wife Jane Parsonnet, Oldwick residents, were also honored for their support of the library. PNC was also singled out during the event. The company had recently given $300,000 to the library for a financial literacy program.
It was a big night for Campbell, probably the youngest person in the crowd at 13 years old, who was given the honor of giving that night's "library patron speech."
Heidi Cramer, library spokeswoman, said the annual gala tries to feature a speech from one library patron.
Campbell, a North Ward resident, had her mother, grandmother and aunt in the crowd when she read her speech. Afterwards, her mother Maureen Hester gave her a big hug amidst a shower of claps.
"I am so proud," said Hester of her daughter.