Tar Heel of the Week

Woman's love of reading spurs book program for kids

cowens@newsobserver.comJuly 27, 2013 

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Ginger Young is the founder of Harvest Books, a Durham nonprofit that provides books to children around the Triangle.

TRAVIS LONG — tlong@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

  • Virginia Murray Young

    Born: May 24, 1962, Atlanta

    Residence: Chapel Hill

    Career: Founder, Book Harvest; owner, Ginger Young Gallery; instructor and program director, Duke Center for Documentary Studies; campaign director, Iona Senior Services

    Education: B.A., sociology, Harvard College; Masters in Public Administration, Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government

    Family: Husband, Jonathan Wiener; sons, Alex and Cal; daughter, Carrie

    Fun Fact: Young met her husband when they ran a service project together at their college class’s fifth reunion. Although she knew all of his roommates as an undergraduate, she did not know him. At their wedding, they ran a service project to celebrate the way they met.

— It does not surprise Ginger Young when she comes home to a box of books sitting on her front porch.

Although Young loves reading, she does not keep the books. Instead, she scoops them up, puts them into her car and takes them to her office to be sorted and then distributed to a child who otherwise might not have any.

“Every day that we get books into the hands of a child is a good day,” she says.

Young, 51, is the founder of Book Harvest, a nonprofit that provides books to low-income children in the Triangle. She estimates the organization has distributed more than 175,000 books in the past two and a half years.

Young strongly believes every child should have access to books, especially in their homes. Statistics back her beliefs; not only has research found that more than half of low-income children do not own books, but it also shows that having books in the home is an indicator of how children perform in school.

“The presence of books in the home turns out to be the single biggest predictor of academic success,” Young says.

To counter the problem of children without books, Book Harvest collects them – new or gently used – through drives and donations. It then sorts the books into age-appropriate categories and allows children to “harvest,” them from bookshelves stationed around the community.

Two programs target specific time periods in a child’s life: summer breaks and the pre-kindergarten years. Children participating in Books on Break select 10 books to take home with them over the summer. The program aims to prevent summer learning loss.

The Book Babies program gives 10 books to children shortly after birth and then again every six months, meaning participants have more than 100 books by the time they start kindergarten.

Book Harvest partners with many community institutions, including Forest View Elementary in Durham. Catriona Moore, a teacher at the school, says she has seen “huge progress,” in kids who receive books through Young and her organization. She says they’re more engaged in school and now talk about books.

“It’s a subtle impact, but it’s absolutely visible,” Moore says. “The kids really respect books. They’re excited about it. It’s amazing.”

A ‘big experiment’

Young founded Book Harvest in 2011, although her passion for books and reading stems back to her own childhood. She carried a book with her everywhere she went and lost herself in stories such as “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Harriet the Spy” and “Curious George.” She couldn’t understand why anyone would go anywhere without a book on hand.

“I have always found books to be the thing that is just essential to having a full and happy life,” she says.

Her love of reading never left her as she left home in Atlanta to attend Harvard. She returned to get a master’s degree in public administration and then worked in Washington, with a grassroots nonprofit – her first taste of the nonprofit world. She moved with her family to North Carolina in 1994, where she first worked in Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and then started her own art gallery.

While raising her own three children, Young always kept her home’s bookshelves stocked. Her children never had to try very hard to persuade her to buy them more books.

Until a couple of years ago, Young assumed all children had plenty of books; some reading and research eventually showed her otherwise. She began noticing the unused, already-read books sitting on her own bookshelves in the house. She then began to ask herself how she could solve the problem.

“I love fixing things,” she says. “I love coming up with nice, tidy solutions to really simple problems.”

Young’s “big experiment,” then started. She put aside her art business to see how much traction her new nonprofit could gather. She quickly saw the community support was there when her first book drive brought in 6,000 books.

“It was kind of like we unleashed this generosity… that had been sitting, gathering dust, on people’s shelves but hadn’t ever been targeted,” she says.

Book Harvest continued to grow, having a “snowball effect,” as Young says. In April, its headquarters moved from her house in Chapel Hill to an office in Durham. It now has three staff members and has added four summer interns. Volunteers come in twice a week in the summer to sort books, which then flow to 20 different distribution partners.

Young describes the process as simple, despite all the work she puts into it.

“Book Harvest is an incredibly simple nonprofit,” she says. “We basically have a single mission, which is that we want to make sure that books end up in the homes of kids who need them.”

‘A bigger world’

Although the organization’s success has grown, Young still gets burned out at times. She puts in long hours and constantly deals with all the “moving parts,” of Book Harvest.

But every time she begins to feel overwhelmed, she says, it turns out to be the day she stocks a bookshelf in the community herself and sees the results of her work. She’ll end up with a child in her lap, reading to him or her.

“I’m reading them a book and I think, ‘You know, this is worth it because the front lines of this are all around us,’ ” she says.

Sarah Carr, Book Harvest’s programs director, describes Young as a visionary. Carr says Young is excited at events where children are choosing books and all of her behind-the-scenes work comes to fruition.

“I think that’s when she comes truly alive,” Carr says.

For the days when Young does not have the chance to connect face-to-face with a child, she has two manila folders full of thank-you notes to encourage her. The notes are hand-written by children who have received books.

Young hopes within five years, every child in the Triangle will have books at home, although she knows this goal will take a lot of work. She sees a larger picture behind her efforts.

“I really think, especially for kids who don’t have a lot, books are a way to envision a bigger world and what may be possible for them,” she says.

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