Books Between Kids

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Building home libraries one summer at a time.

There are people who sit at their desks and tweet/facebook/blog about how awful some particular thing is that they just heard about and shouldn’t someone do something already—and then there are the people who actually do something. Longtime friends Amy Barnes and Sandra Ahlhorn are two such somebodies.

A couple of years ago, Amy read an article in the Houston Chronicle’s op-ed section about children who had no books in their homes. It was a call to action directed at the Houston Independent School District, challenging them to give students books to read over the summer months instead of playing catch-up every fall. Amy didn’t wait for HISD to solve the problem; she took it upon herself to find a way to get books into the hands of underprivileged children.

Meanwhile, Sandra started a book drive at her daughter’s elementary school, and with the help of students, parents and staff, collected gently used books to distribute to two other area schools. Amy organized a separate book drive at West University Elementary as part of the school’s service initiative. The first year, they collected 5,000 books. The second, more than 14,000.

Suddenly, there was interest from other schools in the district, wanting to copy what Amy and Sandra were doing. The two realized that they’d started something good, and they wanted to make it better. “We don’t have PhDs in Book Drives,” Amy says. “We’re just doing book drives. Our kids are fortunate to have plenty of books, and we think everyone should have them.” So they established Books Between Kids with the goal of building home libraries for Houston children in need.

But loftier goals beget larger problems: supply and distribution to name just two. Then along came the online book reseller Better World Books. Amy (like me) had been curious about the green collection bins turning up in area shopping center parking lots. She called the main number and was routed to the woman in charge of donations. After Amy explained her mission, the woman wanted to help. Amy proposed that whatever Books Between Kids collected, Better World Books would match.

They countered by offering to send an 18-wheeler to Houston filled with more than 70,000 books.

“I called Sandy and asked her if she was sitting down. She didn’t want to speak to me for a while,” Amy jokes. “It really was daunting. How do you even move that many books? We had to decide how to store, sort and distribute—and who would get them.”

They used the objective metric of the free and reduced-price lunch program. “We sorted the 200 schools on the highest percentage of free lunches,” Amy says. “There are so many in the 90-100% range. There are 90,000 plus elementary aged kids at or below poverty line in HISD alone. Then we looked at the Stanford reading scores. The lower the scores, the greater the need.” Finally, they had to consider whether the school was prepared to deal with being handed 3,500 books.

“There’s a moment of reckoning when you walk into a school with no PTO funding, no volunteer help. You think, ‘Here I am to save the day with my books,’ but without a plan for handing them out, without space or manpower, they were overwhelmed,” Amy says. “It wasn’t at all the school’s fault, but in a couple of cases, it was just grab and go.”

Amy promised never to let that happen again. “I want kids to have the sense that book ownership is important,” she says. Going forward, recipient schools need to be able to distribute books in a meaningful way: build enthusiasm, set up a book fair-like environment, and the kids will be asked to provide feedback to donor schools.

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Book sorting station.

Currently, HISD has donated warehouse space for sorting and storing. Using personal connections and an online volunteer registration program called SignUp Genius, Books Between Kids recruited more than 100 people to go through the 47 Gaylords of books. After two weekends, more than 65,000 books were ready to go to 10,000 students.

Amy’s and Sandra’s original commitments—to host a single drive—has become a permanent one. “This is forever. We’re not going to change the poverty level, but maybe we can get a few of these kids to fall in love with reading, and maybe they won’t fall behind as the curriculum becomes more challenging. Maybe they’ll be able to break out of the cycle.”

YOU CAN HELP

  • Talk to your school or scout troop or church about holding a Books Between Kids drive.
  • “Like” Books Between Kids on facebook to keep up with news and pop-up volunteer opportunities: https://www.facebook.com/BooksBetweenKids
  • Clean out your own shelves and drop them off at Amy’s house. She’ll accept books throughout the year.
  • Email Booksbetweenkids@yahoo.com with any questions.

Oh, and does anybody have a forklift?

The perfect reward.