Philanthropy spotlight: Books First!

Written by: Laura Baginski

Imagine growing up with little to no access to books—no library nearby, no books at home, not even a library at school. For many Chicago kids living in poverty, this is the norm. Bernadette Dorman and her organization Books First! aims to eradicate "book deserts" by receiving book donations from Chicago families and donating them to Chicago Public Schools that lack libraries. 
 
So far, Books First! has received 22,000 books and delivered them to 10 schools. Every single one of those books makes a difference in the lives of children who might never otherwise experience that connection with words and reading.
 
What's your personal connection to this cause?
During the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, there were a number of discussions on the NPN discussion forum about the challenges teachers face. I asked what teachers needed and one replied that many of her students had poor reading skills and no way to practice those skills. I did some research and learned that 95% of the kids interfacing with the juvenile justice system were functionally illiterate and that an amazing percentage of low-income kids could not read above a fourth grade level. When I did some further research I learned that over 150 Chicago Public Schools did not have libraries. It struck me that kids were being tested on skills and schools' effectiveness were being rated on student achievements when kids did not have the resources to learn those skills.  
 
On a more personal note, I grew up in a home where English was a second language, where there was no money for books, but my parents insisted I go to the public library on the way home from school every day. I know that the majority of the kids I went to school with did not have books at home. I believe that the trajectory of my life was changed by having access to books.  
 
Finally, I know that many of my mom friends find themselves searching for new homes for their children’s beloved, but no longer read, books. It seemed apparent to me that there was a great need for books and there was a wonderful supply of books in need of new homes. I began discussing this with my husband, and he finally said, "Well, why don’t you stop talking about this and start doing something?" Hence, BooksFirst!
 
Why is this charity so important to Chicago kids?
At a party, I was seated next to some teachers who told me about kids who came to school and when handed a book opened it from the back because they had never held a book before school. They told me about not having enough books in their schools for kids to do the requisite 20 minutes of reading each night. About kids who didn’t have permanent homes, who were shunted from home to home with their belongings in a trash bag and who couldn’t get library cards because they didn’t have a permanent address. About bright kids whose world view was limited to grim neighborhoods. I feel that the books that are donated give these kids an opportunity to fall in love with words, to build literacy skills and to see a world beyond the one in which they live.  
 
We frequently get letters from our recipient schools and one made a very deep impression on me: A boy who lived in a homeless shelter wrote that he loved reading, the library was too far away for him to get to, and now he could read and he could teach his little brother to read. I like to think this boy has a chance to fall into love with books, and by having books to teach his little brother to read, his little brother will come to school with a love of books.  
 
How has being involved in this charity affected you as a parent?
I’ve frequently told our son he doesn’t know how lucky he is. When books come to our house, he helps to unload and filter them. He’ll ask me where these books are going and to whom. I think he has an awareness of his privilege that he would not have had otherwise. Now, he allocates part of his allowance to buy books for BooksFirst!. He also tells me that he is thinking about becoming a teacher.  
 
In addition, it has made me feel connected to other parents in a way I never did before. Over 400 parents have donated books—and it isn’t remotely convenient to do so. They have to sort through books, bag them and haul them to one of our three drop-off sites. It never ceases to amaze me that so many moms do this in addition to all the other responsibilities that mothers have. I am amazed by the number of parents I don’t know personally who do book drives, spread the word to their friends, post BooksFirst! promo cards. I think in the city it is sometimes easy to feel that you don’t have a community. I feel that BooksFirst! has given me a community of caring, compassionate parents in a way that no other activity has.  
 
How can people get involved?
We recognize how busy people are so we list ways people can be involved in a few minutes to a year or more. Spreading the word is incredibly important. We’ve intentionally chosen not to become a 501(c)3 because we want to focus on delivering donations to schools without diverting our attention to fundraising, dealing with tax receipts and producing an annual report. Consequently, our “advertising budget” is our own money and we appreciate the power of the grapevine.  
 
In addition to individual book donations, book drives at schools have yielded thousands of books. A book drive is a great way to engage kids in giving to other kids, and we’ve found this truly resonate with them. Finally, we currently have three BooksFirst! drop-off homes, and we would love to have more throughout the city. This is a substantial commitment, and it is never convenient or easy, but the more drop-off sites, the more donations we can receive. 
 
For more information about Books First!, check out its website.
 
Posted on December 29, 2015 at 3:25 PM