For families struggling to put food on the table, providing their children with books may not be in the budget.
From its inception, the Cherry Hill based nonprofit BookSmiles has been on a mission to give underserved children in South Jersey and Philadelphia the opportunity to build their own book libraries.
With the COVID-19 pandemic putting an added financial strain on many families, BookSmiles has partnered with Cherry Hill Public Schools to give families free book bundles during the district’s food distribution pickups. Since the partnership began, BookSmiles has given away nearly 20,000 books a month to Cherry Hill families.
Larry Abrams, founder of BookSmiles, said when the pandemic struck, he realized he would need to change his distribution model. Typically, Abrams collects donated books, and for a nominal donation, teachers can come to his Cherry Hill location and pick up books to distribute to students or add to their classroom libraries.
In order to safely distribute titles, Abrams began giving away titles in cases to teachers who work at Title 1 schools. From there, he started bagging books by age level for donation, so students wouldn’t have to sort through too many titles.
Abrams admits he was initially worried about how the pandemic would affect his operation. He closed shop until April, but quickly realized that now, more than ever, teachers were eager to get books into the hands of students.
“With libraries and bookstores closed, there is such a screaming need to give kids books for their summer reading,” Abrams said.
Since the pandemic, he’s given away more books than he ever has during a school year, reaching that total of 20,000 books a month.
Lisa Feinstein, a literacy coach at James Johnson Elementary, said that ever since BookSmiles came on her radar, she’s been a frequent fixture at the nonprofit. She noted that while there is always a critical need to equip children with books, many students have lost access to the places where they typically might get books because of COVID-19.
“At the end of the day, the most important thing every child needs to be doing every day in order to grow is read,” Feinstein said.
So in June, when Abrams reached out to Feinstein and a small contingent of Cherry Hill teachers about getting back to book distribution, Feinstein was eager for them to put their heads together. She said the conversation surrounding BookSmiles mission has always been how to get books to children who need them the most. Families receiving free meals may not have the money for books, so the meal pickups seemed like a perfect avenue for book distribution.
When families drive up to receive their meals, they have the option to receive a bundle of books as well. Volunteers ask the age of the child or children in the household and give the parent or guardian an age-appropriate stack. BookSmiles has been on hand weekly at the district’s distribution sites, and families are free to request more books at every visit.
“It levels the playing field, because every child needs a home library,” Feinstein said.
Since they started in June, the district and BookSmilles have given out thousands of books and far exceeded expectations. Feinstein said in order to allow BookSmiles to serve other communities this summer — and to restock and prepare for the needs of the fall — the district’s last scheduled distribution will take place on July 27.
BookSmiles collects gently used books seven days a week. Those interested in donating can drop off books at the book bin located outside the nonprofit’s location at 1879 Old Cuthbert Road in Cherry Hill.
To learn more about BookSmiles, visit https://www.booksmiles.org.