(Guest post from Sandra Ahlhorn, Co-founder of Books Between Kids.)
“These books are for us?”… “We get to keep these, for real?” Every time we bring our boxes of books, things like this are said to us by children filled with excitement and wonder at the possibilities inside them.
Independently, Amy and I each began holding gently used book drives at our children’s elementary schools several years ago. Both of us were taken aback at how many children in our city alone were likely to be without books in their homes. Studies link book ownership to an attitude that is more likely to see a child stay in school, partly because they THINK they are book owners, and partly because the presence of books allows them to practice their hard-earned reading skill. This can be hard to do in the summer months, when school is out and access to reading material is limited.
In our school drives, we collect books from our own home libraries, as well as those of other families in our schools – the titles our children simply were no longer reading as they got older. Most of these book are just sitting on shelves or in boxes, gathering dust, when they can be out in new hands, being read by new owners. Once gathered up, these “gently used” books are sorted and boxed up, then delivered to other schools in Houston where the children needed them – off to create libraries in other homes. The books are set up in the recipient schools much like a book fair. The children are assisted by their teachers in their selections and are encouraged to take 6 books home with them – for keeps.
While Amy and I had each started our book collections unbeknownst to the other, our paths quickly converged (pretty likely, as we are long-time friends). We found ourselves regularly sharing information about our strategies, motivations and goals. As our involvement grew, we came to realize that the need was so much greater than the schools we could get to on our own, and in late 2012, we decided to join forces and pursue a larger goal of making book ownership a reality for all children in the Houston area.
First things first, we said, and made lists and created an organized plan of steady growth. While we each got discouraged from time to time by the thought that we would never be able to meet the book needs of all the children, we reminded ourselves that any amount we increased our program by was more than we had done before. Nothing hacks away at the foundation of a great idea like poor planning, or growing too quickly, we were told over and over (and truth be told, we do believe that). So we made our lists, planning to increase our numbers of both drives and recipient schools by double the next year, and doubling that each year. We selected a name – Books Between Kids – and began the eye-crossing process of filing the paperwork to become a 501(c)3.
And then it happened. Amy spied the green bin belonging to Better World Books in a parking lot near her home. She found BWB on the internet, and intrigued by what she saw, decided to call them up and learn a little more. “Where do the books in your bins go?” she asked a BWB employee. One thing led to another, and “the plan” was cast to the side in favor of a new plan – a plan so big neither of us could talk about it properly for a few days. After reviewing our application, BWB offered us lots of books – not thousands like we were already accustomed to dealing with, but rather an 18 wheeler of books. We knew that an amount like this would allow us to reach so many elementary school students, more than we would ever possibly be able to do on our own. Even though it wasn’t on our plan – how could we say no? We shifted gears and turned our attention to finding temporary housing for the delivery, and enough volunteers for the sorting and boxing up of the books. We met with Houston Independent School District (HISD) staff about how to reach the children on such a large scale and they enthusiastically agreed to help us with the logistics of storage, distribution, and the organization of the book fairs at the schools that receive the books. It all came together so perfectly we were a bit dazed – it all seemed to good to be true!
A short time later, the books arrived and were unloaded into our borrowed warehouse space. Over the course of 3 days, more than 200 volunteers came and sorted through more than 70,000 books, organizing them into reading categories, counting them for inventory purposes and boxing them up for temporary storage while we get the recipient schools ready for their book fairs. Our volunteers ranged in age from 3 to 89, and truly, they taught us what a committed group of people is capable of pulling off. This donation from Better World Books, along with the books we have collected from school drives, will make it possible to provide over 12,000 children in the Houston area with 6 books of their own, just in time for the summer break.
While we are astounded, and a very proud of what has been accomplished in just a few short months, there is still so much more to be done. We are thrilled to be able to reach out to as many children as we will this year, and yet approximately 85% of the elementary school-aged children in HISD (over 90,000 children) live at income levels that indicate that they are in need of our help. We will spend the next few months focusing on the distribution of the books we have, and get that legal paperwork finished up! And, with our third founding board member, Janann, in place, we will begin to make our plans for next year. Maybe it was the exhaustion talking, but we did a little dreaming about next year when we were finishing up – WHAT IF we could double our number of books, and WHAT IF we could find a permanent home for our operations, and what would it take to make these dreams a reality. As this year has already exceeded any dreams or visions we had late last year, we are thinking we just might aim very high. The children aren’t the only ones excited by the books – we can’t help being filled with a sense of wonder and excitement from all of the possibilities those books hold in store for the children of Houston, and for us.