It’s Become a Volume Business
Link to Libraries Expands Its Mission — and Its ReachIt all started in early 2008 with a few dozen books collected and then donated to the library at the White Street School in Springfield. Since then, the work — and the mission — of Link to Libraries has expanded and evolved. Instead of simply filling shelves with books — although that’s still a big part of the equation — the organization is developing new and imaginative ways to not only put books directly in the hands of young children, but also involve business and civic leaders in the critical assignment of promoting childhood literacy.
By GEORGE O’BRIEN
Janet Crimmins says she’s read hundreds of letters from young students who have become involved in the Link to Libraries program.
Most of these missives come after a read-aloud program coinciding with a large donation of books to the school’s library from of the organization, which Crimmins and co-founder Susan Jaye-Kaplan started three years ago. Most of these handwritten notes come complete with some curious grammar and spelling, but they all get right to the point:
“Thank you for donating books to our library. We are going to have more fun and we are going to be smarter,” wrote Jerrick Wilson. “I can’t wieght [sic] to read it. I like the book you read to us. It was funny. The bookbag are [sic] cool.”
And there was this from a girl named Samantha: “Thank you Links to Librarie [sic]. I am so thankful because I got to learn new vocabulary to become smarter, so I can have a good job like you. Now I am going to read more books so thank you so much.”
As much as she likes reading such messages, and she really does, Crimmins says she covets her collection of photos featuring children and their books even more. “They’re more expressive than the letters,” she noted, adding that the smiles and the excitement they convey help those who volunteer time, energy, and imagination to this effort know that they are making an impact when statistical, measurable evidence to that effect is elusive and probably years if not decades away.
But those involved with LTL are driven by the belief that absolutely nothing bad can happen when you put books in the hands of young people who might otherwise not have that experience — and that plenty of good can result.
And their work is capturing the imagination of not only young people, their teachers, and principals, but also the business community, which is contributing in a number of different ways. Start with the space at Rediker Software’s headquarters in Hampden that’s been donated by the company as combination warehouse, staging area for donations and bookbag-packing efforts, and photo gallery (those aforementioned pictures of children with books now crowd the walls).
But there are many other efforts — ranging from financial gifts to donations of books and bookbags, to the recruitment of volunteer ‘celebrity’ readers, which include PeoplesBank President Doug Bowen; Steve Bradley, vice president of Government and Community Relations at Baystate Health; and Peter Rosskothen, co-owner of the Log Cabin and Delaney House — that speak to how far this organization and its work have come.
There is actually a waiting list for read-aloud assignments, said Jaye-Kaplan, noting that many individuals have expressed an interest in taking part in the program. There is another waiting list, however, one featuring several dozen schools seeking donations for their libraries, a situation that speaks to the toll the recent downturn has taken on education programs and facilities.
For this issue, BusinessWest relates the story of Link to Libraries, and how its founders are finding that the assignment they’ve taken on continues to grow in scope, importance, and overall satisfaction for those involved.
Margaret Thompson was asked for a snapshot of the student body at the Kensington Avenue School in Springfield. It’s not a particularly pretty picture.
Indeed, 96% of the youngsters, clustered into several streets near the ‘X’ in the city’s Forest Park neighborhood, live in poverty. Thompson, the school’s principal, says she has no hard figure on how many of her students live in single-parent homes, but offered “most all of them.” Some live with grandparents or other relatives, while others are in foster homes, and still others are in shelters, she told BusinessWest.
And then there’s the transience factor; between December and March of last year, 50 of the roughly 340 students in the school left as their parents or guardians moved out of the area, and another 30 came in, a revolving door that provides a stern test for educators.
“The neighborhood itself is not a safe place,” Thompson went on. “But the school is; it’s like a beacon in this neighborhood.”
It’s not written in the organization’s mission statement, but Link to Libraries was essentially created because there are, unfortunately, many schools like Kensington Avenue in the Pioneer Valley, and especially in urban areas like Springfield and Holyoke — places where the gift of a book is “like a treasure,” said Thompson, and donations of a few hundred books to that school’s library — extensively damaged in a flood two years — have an impact well beyond the dollar value of the volumes in question.
It was with facilities like Kensington Avenue School in mind that Kaplan and Crimmins launched Link to Libraries in early 2008. They started on Crimmins’ dining room table, where 65 books, gathered from various sources, were packed up and delivered to the library at the White Street School in Springfield, also in the Forest Park area.
The exercise served as an inspiring beginning, enough to validate what the co-founders were trying to do and ignite a passion to soon recalibrate goals and expectations.
“Everyone — the students, teacher, and principal — were so excited about what we left that we both said, ‘this is something we can do,’” Jaye-Kaplan recalled. “We spent the whole day afterward networking and talking about what we could do and what we should be doing.”
Such humble beginnings are certainly not forgotten amid the thousands of books that arrive at the warehouse monthly, but there have been profound changes and countless signs of exponential growth since a group of 10 volunteers got LTL off the ground.
Indeed, for an organization dedicated to the printed word, some impressive numbers are being used to tell the story.
For example, more than 35,000 books have been distributed to date, and the number for 2011 is approaching 25,000. Also, some 35 area schools and nonprofit organizations — most in Holyoke and Springfield, but several from other surrounding communities — have been involved in book donations, and nearly 10,000 students have received a book.
Meanwhile, another statistic was added this past September: 3,000. That’s the number of young people who received ‘Welcome to Kindergarten’ literacy kits for the start of the new school year. Each child receives two books, a bookbag, and several items for parents and guardians designed to stress the importance of reading and offer tips on encouraging children to do so.
The kit includes a bookmark supplied by the Reading Success by 4th Grade initiative created by the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, as well as a pamphlet from the Harvard Graduate School of Education called Encouraging Your Child to Read.
The program is not exactly unique, said Kaplan, noting that many school departments in Massachusetts and other states have such initiatives. What is unique is that this is funded entirely by LTL, while the others are mostly supported by public dollars.
The kindergarten program, the contents of the literacy kits, as well as a new ‘Read Together’ initiative involving young, disadvantaged children are just a few examples of how the LTL mission has evolved from merely filling library shelves — which remains a big part of the equation — to putting books directly in the hands of children and offering encouragement to read.
Chapters and Verse
While Jaye-Kaplan and Crimmins both do a little of everything — and that includes lugging boxes of books up the three floors to the warehouse (“it’s good exercise; it keeps us in shape,” said the former) — they have developed their own assignment niches, and become quite proficient at each.
Crimmins is unofficially in charge of reading and reviewing children’s books and making recommendations for titles to be purchased and read, while one of Jaye-Kaplan’s primary assignments is writing grant applications.
“I’m the reader, she’s the writer,” said Crimmins. “I’m happiest when I have my nose in a book; I’ve probably read more than half the books we order — and that’s about 400-500 different titles at a time. Each one is chosen for a different reason; they’re all different topics, and they cover a broad age range.”
Jaye-Kaplan, who was a long-time grant judge for Billie Jean King’s Women’s Sports Foundation, believes she’s a better judge than grant writer, but has still enjoyed enormous success in winning funds for Link to Libraries. She says the organization’s mission and partnerships within the community help win the favor of the judges weighing her applications, and that she usually vies for smaller amounts — and for a reason.
“We know other organizations are in need of money, and if we get overzealous, then some others will lose out,” she explained. “So I’m willing to write more grant applications for smaller amounts and spread the wealth.”
And both founders have it within their job descriptions to recruit volunteers to help at the warehouse, readers for classroom duties, and businesses to provide both monetary and in-kind donations. And they don’t seem to be having problems on any of those fronts, especially when it comes to securing help from the business community.
Indeed, while wary of listing participating businesses out of fear that she might forget someone, Jaye-Kaplan eventually acquiesced, and noted that contributions in several shapes and sizes have come from businesses large and small.
She said companies as diverse as Excel Dryer, Big Y, Health New England, Kelly Fradet, Reddiker Software, and Johnson & Hill Staffing have provided financial support and/or help stamping books, loading bookbags, and helping to stock the shelves in the warehouse.
Meanwhile, the read-aloud initiative continues to grow, said Jaye-Kaplan, and is now an important component in the broader effort to promote literacy, not simply supply books to libraries.
She said there are a number of benefits for program participants, meaning both the adults and the children. The former gain an eye-opening look at the challenges faced by educators in schools and districts serving disadvantaged young people, as well as the satisfaction of being part of the solution to the problem. The latter, meanwhile, get to hear a story, while also gaining time with some positive role models (especially adult male professionals, who are missing from the lives of many of the students) and an understanding that community leaders think enough of this organization and its mission to take time out to volunteer.
Both the level of support from the business community and the growing ranks of celebrity readers help Crimmins, Jaye-Kaplan, and others involved with Link to Libraries answer that difficult but necessary question: is this initiative making a real difference in the community?
“I just look at the faces in the photos of the children,” said Crimmins. “They say a lot; they and the letters we get tell us that we’re making a positive influence in these kids’ lives.”
Said Jaye-Kaplan: “we have children tell us over and over again that they’ve never had a book in their home. Some of them are so overwhelmed that they don’t want to bring the book home for fear that it will be lost. We have principals and superintendents of schools who don’t just want us to deliver the books; they want to come here and see what we have, make suggestions, and thank us. They’re committed to helping us succeed.”
Far from the End
Given how far LTL has come in 3 ½ short years, Jaye-Kaplan and Crimmins say it’s difficult to project what those often-quoted numbers will be a few years out.
They both think it’s fair to say that the organization will continue to expand and hone its mission and find new and imaginative ways to put books in the hands of children, while continuing to preach the importance of childhood literacy.
Meanwhile, more read-alouds are scheduled to get more area business and civic leaders involved in the initiative and bring the message home in ways beyond the gleaming new volumes on the library shelves.
After all, there are thousands of children, like young Jerrick Wilson, who can’t wieght for their next book.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]