Home • Camden County News Racing to read: BookSmiles’ own run/walk will benefit the ever-growing nonprofit

Racing to read: BookSmiles’ own run/walk will benefit the ever-growing nonprofit

Nonprofit collects and redistributes thousands of children's books.

In the past six years, founder of BookSmiles Larry Abrams has collected and redistributed millions of books to children in need. (Special to The Sun)

What was once a small operation with a teacher collecting books for students  who lacked reading material has since grown into one of the largest children’s book banks in America. 

Based in Pennsauken, BookSmiles collects used children’s titles and sorts, organizes and redistributes them to students. Cherry Hill resident Larry Abrams, a former teacher at Lindenwold and Moorestown high schools, started his book bank in 2017.

“It comes from a place of equity, where I think all children – all children – should have a personal library of their own starting at infancy,” he explained. “What we do is, we divert books from going into the trash. Every children’s book, 99% of the books we give away, are gently used books. 

“We work very hard to collect them, to sort them and distribute them.”

Helping that effort will be BookSmiles’ first 5K run/1-mile walk fundraiser on Sunday, Aug.  27, at Cooper River Park. 

During the pandemic, when many libraries stopped accepting books, BookSmiles continued to take them. As teachers stopped coming to shop for titles, the nonprofit began distributing books by the pallet to food banks – including the Food Bank of South Jersey and Share Food Philadelphia – allowing it to provide titles by the tens of thousands. 

Through various fundraisers, BookSmiles raised enough money to buy a truck for collections from people who do book drives and have 1,000 books or more. 

Though Abrams originally housed collections in his garage and classroom, today BookSmiles has a larger warehouse-like space. In one corner is a teacher-take  section where titles are neatly organized by grade level and there are books with topics like LGBTQ, diversity and inclusion. 

Teachers can register for $25 per year to come by as many times as they’d like and take as many books as they want for their students and classrooms. Abrams knew first hand what it was like to desire books for students.

“I taught at the (Lindenwold) high school, but I knew at the elementary school, there were lots of kids with no books,” he noted. 

Abrams found that in researching book deserts where there are few or no titles in homes, families didn’t realize how important reading is for their kids. And he could see it in the community.

“There are just no books in homes, because either people don’t have the money for them, or they don’t know it’s important to have libraries like this,” he said.  “And so, I started collecting, and then it just started growing on its own. 

“I liked it,” Abrams added, “and now we’re at the point where we have two full-time workers, two part-time workers and myself.”

BookSmiles has created ripples across the South Jersey and Philadelphia  areas, and there are teachers who drive long distances to stock up on books.  The organization is open to all.

Deborah Marcee, an environmental science teacher at Kipp DuBois Collegiate Academy in West Philadelphia, has been a faithful and frequent visitor of BookSmiles since she first heard about it a few years ago, and now is a volunteer there.

“When you come in here, this section here, where all the books are where teachers can come grab what they need, it’s extremely well organized,” she noted. “They’re looking for really good books that aren’t ripped or torn, so you’re not giving a child who lives in West or North Philadelphia a ripped up book. 

“They are used to stuff that’s not the best,” Marcee added, “so they’re (teachers) able to give students what looks like brand new books.”

Marcee often takes back books from her school’s bins to encourage her students to read, especially given the setbacks they and teachers faced during COVID.

“The hope is that they see the books and they want to read them,” she pointed out.

Marcee has witnessed the impact that access to reading material can have in her own classroom, where she recently started a poetry club and students read a book with poems arranged in shapes and colors. She then encourages them to make their own titles. 

“They said, ‘You can do that?’” Marcee recalled. “I wanted to cry and smile at the same time, because I felt so sad. That creativity – they didn’t know about it.”BookSmiles’ 5K run/walk will begin at 8 a.m. Registration is $30. The nonprofit is also looking for sponsors. Those interested in learning more or participating in the event can register at https://runsignup.com/Race/NJ/CherryHill/BookSmiles5K.

To get involved with BookSmiles, visit https://www.booksmiles.org/.

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