Toms River District: Bridging The Gap Between Students & Vets

Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, is a Vietnam veteran whose novels have sold more than six million copies. In 2013, O’Brien received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Literature from the Pritzker Military Library, and in 2018 he received the Mark Twain Award in literature. He will visit Toms River as part of NEA Big Read March 28, 2019. (Photo courtesy Michael Kenny)

TOMS RIVER – Toms River Regional Schools is the recipient of a $15,000 grant from The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and Arts Midwest to host the NEA Big Read for the second year in a row. The district is one of only 79 institutions in the nation to receive this grant this year.

“The National Endowment for the Arts is proud to support opportunities for communities across the nation, both small and large, to take part in the NEA Big Read,” said NEA Acting Chairman Mary Anne Carter. “This program encourages people not only to discuss a book together, but be introduced to new perspectives, discuss the issues at the forefront of our own lives, and connect with one another at events.”

During the 2017-2018 school year, Toms River schools became one of the first two public school districts ever to receive the NEA Big Read grant. The grant was used to host a month of activities centered on the post-apocalyptic novel Station Eleven.


For the 2018-2019 school year, from mid-February to Vietnam Veterans Memorial Day on March 29, the district will host activities and discussion on the novel The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. The book is a collection of short stories about the Vietnam War.

“This past October, NEA Big Read proved to be not only a fun and engaging way to promote literacy, but a means of uniting people throughout Toms River,” said Superintendent David Healy. “This award for the coming year further cements our involvement in Big Read and our capacity to host wide-scale programs, and it’s also on the continuum of our efforts in student achievement, literacy, and community partnerships.”

For the upcoming school year, the district will be working with various partners to host the Big Read including: Ocean County Library, Ocean County College, the Greater Toms River Chamber of Commerce, Ocean County Health Department, local veterans and TRRS alumni, NAVAIR, Ocean County Tourism, and Warrior Writers.

With the largest veteran population in New Jersey, Toms River township and the school district intends to use this program to create intergenerational bonds between students and vets and spark conversation.

“What seems to appeal to the NEA and Arts Midwest about our approach is the fact that we really strive to relate our selected novel to Toms River,” said High School English Language Arts Supervisor Tonya Rivera. “This past year we successfully connected a contemporary, post-apocalyptic novel to Superstorm Sandy, and next year we plan to use The Things They Carried not only to discuss the broader issue of war, but the figurative weights we carry as a township, and as classmates, families, and friends. This will open the door to exploring challenging and personal topics like mental health and addiction.”

The Things They Carried is a novel about author Tim O’Brien’s experiences during the Vietnam War. It has sold well over two million copies worldwide and was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Members of the district have already begun planning the upcoming program, which will incorporate a mini poetry festival, family book clubs, and collaborative events with OCL such as a “Music of the Vietnam Era” showcase.

“Toms River has almost 7,000 veterans,” said Emily Mazzoni, Ocean County Library’s principal librarian of teen services. “We look forward to this Big Read as a literary bridge between generations. Our programs will center around the parallels of the 1960s generation and today’s generation, including teen empowerment, engagement and advocacy.”

The program has not only enabled the district to do all of this, but with additional funding from district partners, students will get a special appearance and discussion from the book’s author, Tim O’Brien on March 28, 2019.

“From Toms River Mayor Tom Kelaher, to members of our Board of Education, to numerous district staff members, veterans comprise a large and extremely important element of our township’s makeup,” said Board of Education President Russell Corby. “Our board proudly supports a program that will spotlight our service members and veterans. NEA Big Read has proven to be a unique way to highlight student achievement while uniting this community and it’s brought some well-deserved national attention to Toms River.”

You can find more information about events and activities on the district’s NEA Big Read website, as well as on its social media channels and those of its partners.

Any institutions in Toms River interested in partnering with the district on this and other initiatives may contact grant writer Mike Kenny at 732-505-5500 ext. 500053.