On her 90th birthday last September, Ada Spanier went on a wee spending spree. She bought children’s books. And then she started handing them out for free the next month.
“I took $90 to buy books. Later, some people who heard about the project gave me more money. And then others brought books to me,” says Spanier. “So far, I have given out 573 books, and I have enough money for another 100 or so.”
Spanier distributes the books once a month at the Habitot Children’s Museum at 2065 Kittredge St. in Berkeley — where she has worked since the age of 78.
Along with the books, Spanier gives parents articles on the value of reading to children and how to read to them. “Children get behind if they don’t learn to read,” she says, “so I want them to be comfortable with books.”
Spanier and her husband, Lee, 89, are active members of Kol Hadash, a congregation for secular, humanistic Judaism that meets in Albany. Married for 55 years, they live in Berkeley and have two grown grandchildren.
But the most amazing thing is that Ada is still working at 90. Why?
“I’m not the volunteer type,” she says. “I like to be bossy.”
At Habitot, Spanier talks with parents and provides them with child-rearing resources from her well-stocked file cabinet. She also has knitted 80 caps, which she donates to hospitals that treat children with cancer.
Lee Spanier never complains about his wife’s book-buying or wool-buying trips, she says. “He is accustomed to my being overactive,” she notes. “I am a very lucky woman.”
Gina Moreland, founder and director of Habitot, considers herself to be lucky, as well. “Ada is our grandma in residence,” Moreland says. “Everyone knows her and loves her, and some people think she’s the owner.”
After six years of preparation, Moreland opened Habitot in 1998. The nonprofit early childhood center and hands-on discovery museum offers classes, camps, birthday parties, field trips, parenting education programs, and campaigns on safety and literacy. Many of the programs offer outreach to vulnerable children and their parents — teen parents, families with special-needs children and others. (Visit www.habitot.org for more information.)
“Ada came in on opening day, when it was pandemonium,” Moreland recalls. “She looked around and asked who was in charge. She told me she thought the energy was the best thing she had ever seen, and she wanted to volunteer here. I told her to come back on Monday.”
Spanier did come back, and after a couple of months as a volunteer, she asked Moreland for a part-time job. Moreland was willing to make the hire.
“Some of the parents who came here for events and classes needed some hand-holding, some guidance,” says Moreland, 56, who lives in Kensington. “I could see Ada’s value, see her heart — which is bigger than the Earth — and it was clear that she had had experience working with parents and with families.”
Spanier did have experience as a teacher’s assistant and she also ran a crafts business for a time.
“I have done many things, but I have always been interested in very young children and old people. Those in the middle, I leave to work it out for themselves,” Spanier says with a laugh. “I have a lot of faith in the children I meet at Habitot, and their parents are bright, educated and loving.”
Born and reared in Brooklyn, Spanier left New York in 1956 with her husband and their 10-year-old son. Living in Detroit in the early ’70s, Spanier and her husband helped Rabbi Sherwin Wine organize the Society for Humanistic Judaism, which celebrates Jewish culture and identity while adhering to humanistic values and ideas. Kol Hadash is one of the movement’s more than 25 synagogues and communities in North America.
“Over time, we lost touch with that [Detroit] group, but once here, we saw a notice that Kol Hadash was starting up,” says Spanier. “I enjoy the people. They are inquisitive and interesting, and I participate in everything offered.”
Spanier pauses, and adds: “At our age, it’s a blessing to be busy, and it’s wonderful to be stimulated intellectually. My husband and I are in reasonable health, we’re not too poor and not too rich and we love living in Berkeley. This is a wonderful place for us.”
Gladys Perez-Mendez has known Spanier since they both lived in Brooklyn.
“Ada is just amazing — no one would ever imagine that she’s 90,” says Perez-Mendez, 83, a retired chemist who lives in Berkeley and writes the Kol Hadash newsletter. “She is interested in everything, and full of stories. Not only does she still work, she works with little children. She loves those kids.”
From all reports, the kids love the books, which are displayed in a pretty basket at Habitot before they are given away. And nearby is a poster that Moreland made that tells the story of Spanier’s program.
“When I give away the books,” Spanier says, “I always tell the children that the books are my birthday present to them.”