Larry Abrams’ garage was rapidly getting out of control. In the last few years, his humble desire to collect books for underserved children had snowballed into thousands of books in need of sorting and practically spilling out of his Cherry Hill home.
So, Abrams’ nonprofit, BookSmiles, is moving out of the family garage and into a designated space of its own in Cherry Hill. Abrams is planning for a grand opening on Aug. 29, and he hopes to collect 10,000 books before then to give away to teachers that day.
BookSmiles came to fruition more than two years ago. Abrams, an English teacher, taught in the Moorestown school district from 2001 to 2004. He said in Moorestown, students have every opportunity, and when he left to teach at Lindenwold High School, he was struck by the disparity.
One day, he was chatting with one of his students who had a baby girl at home. He happened to ask what the mother was reading to her 2-year-old daughter at home, and she learned that in the Mexican culture she came from, it wasn’t commonplace to read to children so young. He explained he had started reading to his own children as early as 2, and he wanted to get her some children’s books to do the same. There was only one problem: he’d already donated all of his children’s books to the library.
So, he put out a call to Facebook for children’s books.
“I got buried,” Abrams said. “It was a deluge.”
He was met with such an overwhelming response that it got the gears turning for him. He decided, why stop with this one student? He made it his mission to give every Lindenwold family with young children 50 to 100 books to start their own mini book library.
“A couple of years ago, I decided that I needed to be an agent for change,” Abrams said.
Since that time, BookSmiles has seen tremendous growth, expanding in ways Abrams couldn’t have anticipated. Abrams spoke about his efforts at a New Jersey Education Association conference, and shortly thereafter, the Glassboro and Vineland school districts wanted to join.
With that, Abrams devised the BookSmiles campaign, which is now a nonprofit. Its mission is to collect and distribute books to children who don’t have books at home. It regularly sets up book fairs in districts where students may not be able to afford Scholastic book fairs. Abrams said if the children ask about paying, they simply say “pay with a smile.”
He’s partnered with local food banks. He said when families are in need of food, books aren’t the priority, but he wanted to make sure young children weren’t left behind with their education. BookSmiles has also joined forces with social services in Philadelphia, and so, when social workers go for a home visit, they now bring books with them, which take a little bit off the edge off of an uncomfortable situation.
Abrams said BookSmiles has “opened his eyes as a teacher.” He said they’re often so focused on helping kids to excel in the classroom that they don’t think about how they can be effecting change outside of the classroom. His hope is that by giving students books at the earliest of reading ages, they’ll come armed to school with the skills they need to succeed.
Along the way, Abrams said he’s met people who are willing to contribute in any number of ways – whether that means donating books or money, helping to sort or helping him get to partner with local schools. Last summer, Shawnee High School held a school-wide book drive that resulted in nearly 1,600 books being donated to BookSmiles.
Most recently, Abrams put a call out to John Langan and Judy Nadell of Townsend Press and told them he was in need of a space to store all of the donations he was receiving. He told them how much rent might go for, and the pair helped him secure a space and offered to pay rent for his operations.
His vision is to turn the 1,000 square-foot facility into a space where people can drop off books, volunteer to help sort and where teachers, social service workers and anyone in need can pick up books as needed.
Abrams and his family are currently readying the space – located at 1879 Old Cuthbert Road, Unit 33 in Cherry Hill – for their grand opening. He’s invited local freeholders and about 100 teachers from underserved districts to the event. For a $10 fee, teachers can leave with between 100 to 200 books to distribute to their students. He said the fees go entirely toward supporting the overhead costs of the facility.
BookSmiles is always looking for book donations and volunteers. He said the support he’s received from fellow teachers has been nothing short of overwhelming.
“We have a lot of power,” Abrams said. “We can do this, but we have to think about what we’re doing in the classroom, so that we can really effect change outside the classroom.”
To stay up-to-date on the grand opening or to learn more about BookSmiles, visit www.booksmiles.org.