Free books for kids at the Food Pantry

“Free Books for Kids” says the sign that I put up every week at the local food pantry. The boxes of books, and two small folding tables, live in the back of my old Explorer.

This,

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quickly becomes this

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When I began several years ago I was thinking it would be like a library or book exchange: kids would return the ones they chose last time and get new ones. It didn’t take long to understand the shortcomings of that model. Mostly, there’s too much turnover and uncertainty. Families are only permitted 12 visits a year to the food pantry (a state or federal limitation); they might come three weeks in a row and then not return for months. Some live in cars, campgrounds, or at a series of friends’ houses. And families vanish, moving elsewhere for various reasons or (we hope) experiencing an improvement so that they don’t need the food pantry any more. Kids forget to bring things back. I can’t turn away needy kids that want books; my desire is only to get books into the hands of young people, from infants to high schoolers.

So now my little “Book Bank” (like a “Food Bank”) is as simple as can be. Free books for kids whose families come to the food pantry. Period. I say, “You can bring them back whenever you’re done, or keep them forever.”

That’s the only way it will work, and it also gives kids books of their very own. A dozen favorite books don’t take up much space and may be a help to children who move a lot, and live with constant change and uncertainty.

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I had expected my “customers” to be kids and parents, but grandparents have turned out to be an important group too. Some care for grandchildren regularly (or are raising them), some have kids staying over in summer, visiting on weekends, or just dropping in. A few aunts and uncles come by also. Occasionally these books are given by the adults as birthday or Christmas gifts to the kids.

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I’ve expanded to include workbooks (printing, arithmetic, shapes and colors, word recognition, etc.) and flash-cards.

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This isn’t the Baby Einstein scene, grooming kids for prep school or to impress the parents’ rich friends; the parents and grandparents want their kids to be ready for school, and to do well there. Despite all the worries a family has when they need to come to a food pantry, most of these adults are actively working to help their children succeed in school. And I know the parents read to the children because the kids themselves tell me so.

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Cardboard books for infants and toddlers are popular. These sturdy books have bright simple illustrations; parents can point out colors, shapes, animals, noses and ears as the babies are learning language (long before any actual words come out). Children learn how to hold a book right way up, turn the pages, and be comfortable with a book in hand. They get a positive association with books and reading, to go along with the good feelings of being read to from all sorts of books––as well as from being sung to, talked to, and all those other forms of language that flow between adults and young children.

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The books are arranged by age of likely readers: in addition to the bins of cardboard books and workbooks, there are two big plastic boxes: one for picture books and simple books, another for longer books with longer words. “Chapter books” (a new term that I learned from the kids, who ask for them that way) go in a smaller box; these are short to medium-length novels for readers up through high school.

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Except for the workbooks, I regularly read books from all of the categories while I am sitting alongside my display. There’s some very good writing, and of course the illustrations are often wonderful. Kids’ books must be putting bread in the mouths of quite a few artists. That’s a good thing especially with art in schools having been virtually eliminated; at least children get to see paintings, drawings, and photographs with artistic merit and heart.

Where do the books come from? and other details

Most come from the bookstores operated by Friends of the Library, at local branches and also in Portland (OR). Locally I pay 25¢- 50¢; Portland has higher prices but a huge selection. Twice a year I go there and buy maybe a hundred books, stocking up on the ever-popular dinosaur picture books, ones on science and nature, and others that are hard to find. Then there are garage and yard sales where sometimes kids’ books go for a few bucks per cardboard boxful. Once in a while I find suitable new books at the Dollar Store, where I buy all the workbooks and flash-cards. And occasionally people (at the food pantry or elsewhere) donate books outgrown by their children. I could be more active in soliciting such donations, something to work on.

After I acquire books I do a little processing. I wash the covers and spines with a damp rag and 409 to remove grime and make the books look shiny and more appealing. A few may need a bit of mending, for which I use clear packaging tape. Then I stamp each one inside the back cover: “Free Books for kids/at Ruch Food Pantry./To donate kids’ books/or $ pls call xxx-1234.”

One reason for the stamp is to help books come back, although few do. I have an informal arrangement with the local branch library: if books with my stamp arrive in their bookdrop, they save them for me. That offers a much more accessible return location than the food pantry which is only open 3 hours a week.

Our food pantry is a small one; we average 20 to 25 households each week, though lately it has been getting busier. There are many households that don’t include children. There are times when I go home without having given out a single book, and days when I have half a dozen eager customers. When people arrive I haven’t seen before, I go over and introduce myself; even if there aren’t any children accompanying them, there may be kids at home, or grandchildren in their lives. If kids hang back shyly I talk to them and their parents and invite them to come and look. A lot of these kids are quite wary of how much things cost, so they need reassurance that yes, all the books are free (even though some have old price stickers from the places where I got them). And I let my customers know how pleased I am that they came, which is just the truth.

And when someone comes over to tell me that the books have made a difference—their grandchild is reading better, their kids are enjoying the books or benefitting from the workbooks, do I have more books about horses or dogs because their daughter just loves to read them—well, you can imagine how good that is!

And now, why did I write this?

Only one reason: I’m hoping someone may read it and decide to do something similar. The Food Pantry connexion is a good one, and the project doesn’t take a lot of time. Your Food Pantry or similar organization would probably welcome this addition to their services. “Food for the mind, as well as the body,” was my pitch, but the idea didn’t really need a “pitch” to be accepted. Or perhaps you just have books your kids have outgrown: consider giving them to the local women’s shelter, where women and children often arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and may stay for weeks. Library Friends’ bookstores always welcome donations, and offer cheap books to the community (with proceeds used to support library activities and services). And libraries or schools may need volunteers to read with kids or to kids.

If you’re looking for an organization to get involved with, there seem to be a lot of them. Maybe your area has one like SMART (Start Making A Reader Today) in Oregon that pairs adult volunteers with early readers, to improve children’s ability and their love for reading. There are many local and national groups concerned with kids and reading; I googled “kids reading organizations” [do not use quotation marks if using this as a search term] and came up with a bunch. Look for evidence of actual work done, not just raising money and promoting “awareness of the issue”.

“Give me a place to stand, and I can move the earth.” So said Archimedes, who did not invent the lever but gave the “earliest known rigorous explanation” of how it worked. There are many such places to stand, for anyone who wants to change the world a bit. The promotion of reading for kids, in a direct personal way, is one of them.

4 thoughts on “Free books for kids at the Food Pantry

  1. Wow! What a great project. And how wonderful to hear that down-on-their-luck parents are still doing their damnest for their kids. Thanks so much for supporting all of them. Could you provide information on where to send a contribution?
    PS You write so well.

  2. Thanks, Ann. I’d like to give others a way to contribute to this, but I don’t want to put my name and address on the web so I have to work something out.

    One suggestion for those with children themselves, would be to donate outgrown usable kids’ books to their local women’s shelter, Boys and Girls Club, literacy programs, Head Start, even to schools—I know our local school does not have enough money to buy extra books for younger kids to read in the classroom during “free reading” time. Donating books to your library’s Friends organization also helps to provide cheap books for the community, and sales proceeds help the library.

  3. Dear Cynthia….Hi! It is I –Cathy with all the Border Collies….How are you??? How is your husband?? We have been all across the country and guess what..we are on our way back …no place like the Applegate (or that part of Oregon)..hope to talk to you soon…C

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