Good People Doing Good Things — BOOKS, BOOKS, BOOKS!

Books.  Books are probably the single most important tool we have at our disposal to teach children, to help them grow into their future role in the world.  From books they learn so much … history, different cultures, science, art, literature, and much, much more.  Think back to your own childhood … what would it have been without books?  Today we hear so much from politicians, religious leaders, and even school boards about banning books.  Personally, I think banning books is criminal!  Yes, some books may not be appropriate for very young children, but that is a call to be made by professional educators, not politicians!  Today, I want to introduce you to three young good people who are doing their part to ensure that young people have books to read, to learn and to grow from!  They, perhaps more than any others, are helping to secure the future by providing the means for the next generation to learn.

Rania Zuri (17 | Morgantown, West Virginia) loves reading, but noticed a challenge to many young children across her home state. In 2020, Rania was helping build a small library while volunteering at a local nonprofit when she learned that many of the young girls who would benefit from her work had never owned a book before. After more research, Rania found that not only were many parts of West Virginia “Book Deserts”— geographic area with limited access to age-appropriate books, print materials and reading culture—but many book donation organizations are inaccessible due to a lack of local funding partners. Furthermore, West Virginia has a high rate of families in poverty leaving them without disposable income to buy books, and some towns in the state are so small and remote, they do not have a public library within 50 miles. To help young children have access to books and other reading materials, Rania founded The LiTEArary Society.

The LiTEArary Society is made up of over 50 high school student volunteers who fundraise, purchase, and distribute beloved children’s books. The Society works closely with Head Start, a federal program for children ages 3-5 who live at or below the poverty line. Rania and her team began with three counties that were most in need, including the two counties most impacted by the opioid crisis. As the organization grew, they were able to partner with Barnes and Noble and support children in the Head Start programs across the remaining 52 counties in the state, distributing over 6,000 books. To bring books to even more children, The LiTEArary Society recently launched their “Fifty Nifty Head Start Road Tour” where they aim, with the help of Scholastic and Good Morning America, to support children in every Head Start program across the U.S.

When she and her team are not distributing books, Rania and the LiTEArary Society also host read-a-loud events and bring in authors of the books they distribute to talk with the younger students. Rania has also been hard at work raising awareness of book deserts and how collective action can make a difference through TedX and, most recently, by authoring a U.S. Senate Resolution sponsored by Senator Shelly Capito from West Virginia. The resolution, set to go to the Senate floor this Spring, will establish a special commemorative day to End Book Deserts for Children in Head Start. Scholastic and Barnes and Noble have put their support behind Rania and her resolution, giving the public easy opportunities to carry out The Society’s mission!

Something that Matthew Bordenstein (16 | Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) learned during the COVID-19 lockdowns was the vastness of the discrepancy around access to books. This was especially noticeable in Matthew’s hometown where a large number of refugees, including those from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bhutan, Iraq, Morocco, and Myanmar have resettled. English Language Learners (ELLs) are at a disadvantage when attending schools and searching for employment, so Matthew joined the team at Bookworm Global as their Pittsburgh Ambassador to help increase English literacy.

As a Bookworm Global Ambassador, Matthew works with local students to host book drives for readers of all ages and abilities. After each donation event, Matthew will screen the books to ensure that they use language that is culturally sensitive and appropriate, then sort through the books and assign them to their destination. Based on needs from area schools, community organizations, and resettlement agencies, books might support youth through pop-up libraries, after-school programs, summer reading camps, community centers, and tutoring and mentorship programs. Matthew’s programming also supports adult ELLs, giving them the ability to learn or practice reading, speaking, and writing in English as they apply for jobs in their new country.

Since February 2022, Matthew has collected and donated over 4,000 books to youth and adults who have been resettled in the greater Pittsburgh community, and is now considered Bookworm Global’s refugee specialist. As Matthew continues his work, his next goal is to expand his reach so that he is able to provide books to more communities across Pittsburgh and southwestern Pennsylvania, as well as provide books in languages other than English. While Matthew is impacted by the story of each person he interacts with, he is most excited that these books are a sign of hope and of the future.

During the COVID 19 pandemic, reading was a big part of being at home for Natasha Agarwal (15 | Estero, Florida). Although she could not physically travel, she felt that she could visit anywhere in the world through a great book. Reading also gave her exposure to new cultures and ways of life. Upon realizing that not everyone has access to books—61% of families considered “low-income” did not have any books in their homes—Natasha wanted to find a way to give others the ability to travel the world by getting lost in a book. In eighth grade, she decided to host a book drive to support younger children in her community. Seeing how successful her book drive was (Natasha collected over 3,000 books) and how passionate her peers were in donating their favorite titles, she launched the nonprofit BelieveNBooks.

Through BelieveNBooks, Natasha aims to lessen the reading gap in Florida by increasing early access to books for children who are underserved or are facing hardships. Studies have shown that the most successful way to improve the reading achievement of children in low-income communities is to increase their access to print materials. They’ve also shown that as the number of books in a child’s home increases, the child’s reading scores also increase. In addition to her book drives, Natasha has also created a digital learning library called PAGETURNER, a YouTube Channel with videos of high school students reading early level children’s books aloud. Pictures of the pages will be projected onto the screen in addition to the audio. To give children the opportunity to read along, Natasha and her team also distribute hard copies of the books featured on the channel.

When Natasha started her nonprofit, she set a goal of distributing 60,000 books by the time she graduates high school in 2025. Having recently donated her 55,000th book, she’s upped her goal, aiming for 100,000 books! Natasha is always looking for ways to involve the community in her work, whether it’s activating her peers in sorting and packing sessions, partnering with schools in neighboring counties to start their own book drives, or finding organizations like the Shelter for Abused Women and Children or the Golisano Children’s Hospital to help her get books into the hands of children. By providing early access to reading materials, Natasha hope that the children she hopes will have a better foundation to help them throughout their time in school and beyond.

Good People Doing Good Things — Larry Abrams

Since this is Banned Books Week, what better than to find a ‘good people’ for this week who is providing books to young people rather than taking them away?  And so, allow me to introduce you to Larry Abrams, a high school English teacher in Lindenwold, New Jersey.  Lindenwold is what is referred to as an ‘under-resourced’ community, in other words many people there are living below the poverty line.  Prior to moving to Lindenwold, Mr. Abrams had lived and taught in a fairly affluent suburb of Philadelphia, so Lindenwold was somewhat of a new experience, to say the least …

“I’d heard of food deserts, but I’d never heard of book deserts. And it occurred to me that I teach in a book desert. Many of the kids in school simply struggle with reading. In my ninth-grade class it’s very typical to have kids reading at a fifth-grade reading level. And if you’re struggling with reading, you’re going to be struggling with writing.”

But what really set him on his current pathway was an incident in 2017, when he asked one of his students, a high school senior and mother of a 2-year-old child, what sort of books she reads to her child.  When she answered that she didn’t read to her child, Abrams was stunned.  He immediately put out a call to friends and family asking for gently used children’s books, and in no time, he had more than 1,000 of them!  And that was the beginning of his commitment to put books in the hands of every child.  He began distributing the books to young moms and local elementary schools and started a nonprofit called BookSmiles.

“It just became addictive. There are millions of kids in America who’ve never owned a book in their lives. I want to change that.”

Growing up, Larry loved visiting used bookstores and reading books that others had enjoyed before him.

“I certainly like the transformative experience of reading, of going into other worlds, experiencing other cultures.”

His organization has since collected, sorted, and distributed hundreds of thousands of books throughout New Jersey and the Philadelphia area — and will soon reach 1 million.  BookSmiles engages the community to help collect books and drop them off in the group’s large collection bins, which are painted with literary-themed artwork and located outside local businesses, houses of worship, schools, and people’s homes. Books are often distributed through teachers, who come to the book bank and select as many books as they want.

Mr. Abrams was recently interviewed by CNN for their CNN Heroes segment.  Below is a portion of that interview.

CNN: Why is it important for children to be exposed to reading as early as possible?

Larry Abrams: Children should be read to because it’s something that is joyous. It’s something that creates a bond between the parent and the child in such a visceral and important way. Reading books creates a moment that will never be extinguished; it’ll always stay with the child. And what’s more, reading books to your kids gives them power. The most important tool that they get are words. There are some kids who grow up hearing lots and lots of words because they’re read to every single night. They are used to hearing sentences strung together when they’re babies. And then there are other kids who never get that. Reading and books helps level that playing field. It gives words, millions of words to these babies who really, really need them.

It’s my hope that every child who receives our books accumulates a library of their own and reads the books so that way they come to kindergarten reading ready. Giving kids books almost ensures academic success. And every child in America should have the chance to be academically successful. Being able to use language and words is power.

CNN: Your organization serves areas that are considered book deserts. What is a book desert?

Abrams: These are areas where people just don’t have access to books. There are book deserts in rural areas in Appalachia. There are book deserts in North Philadelphia. They don’t have (books) in their homes. In many book deserts, there are no libraries, no bookstores. There are pockets of poverty where people just don’t have the funds to spend on a book. There are many families just surviving and getting to the next paycheck. Infant formula is expensive. Food is expensive. Rent is expensive.

Some people are a paycheck away from disaster and they don’t have the resources to go spending money on books. That’s where we come in — to help folks like that. We work on irrigating book deserts by pouring hundreds of thousands of books in. We are changing and improving lives one book at a time.

CNN: Why is it so important for you to involve teachers in your efforts?

Abrams: I’m a teacher and it’s super important to help other teachers. Teachers get a small stipend to go and buy supplies (for their classrooms). But all too often we have to spend hundreds of dollars of our own money to give kids a real quality learning environment. We’re the ones who have to buy Kleenex. We have to buy markers. I hate it when teachers have to go online with their hat in their hand begging for school supplies. That should not happen.

The teachers who really care are committed to paying out of pocket to provide more robust learning environments for their students. And when we’re here to give them hundreds of dollars worth of books, that is a blessing, and they appreciate it. Some of these teachers get addicted to coming to the book bank, and we want them to because they are the best distributors of books that we have. In a lot of towns, we teachers are undervalued. But we really are a mighty force. We are an army. Teachers just get each other, especially those who love the profession and are in for the long haul. So, if I can help them by giving them books, that’s a beautiful thing.

Filosofa gives a big thumbs up to Larry Abrams for his effort to ensure that no child is without books in this time when it seems that others would take the books away.