Imagine a community in which every child owns books by the dozens, reads all summer long, and personally chooses every book in his or her home library.
That’s the vision that drives Ginger Young and the Durham group she runs, Book Harvest.
“Every child should have the littered landscape of books in their home that my kids and I had,” said Young, Book Harvest’s executive director. She imagines the book-filled home “in terms of empathy and connections and a sense of the world bigger than the world you live in – which everybody needs.”
Young didn’t set out to found a thriving nonprofit, but that’s what happened. About six years ago, when her youngest child was entering her teens, Young told her children to go through their own books and gather the ones they were ready to part with. Her plan was to give the books directly to other children. A few friends learned of the effort and offered to harvest books from their children’s collections too.
“So within two weeks, I had 6,000 books in my garage,” she recalled. Word spread. “And within a month I had another 10,000. It created this tidal wave of books that has not stopped since.” She gave herself a mandate: The books must all go into the homes of children, and not be given to a library or charity.
Why is ownership so crucial? Because, said Young, studies have shown that owning books leads kids to identify themselves as readers. Also, low-income families may have difficulty getting to a public library.
“Access is a really elusive thing,” Young noted. “One of our hallmarks is that we go where the kids are.”
Today, Book Harvest turns over more than 2,000 books every week, said Isabel Geffner, advancement coordinator. The process is fueled by the steady stream of book donations and facilitated by an army of volunteers who keep bookshelves stocked at about 68 distribution points.
Young puts a high priority on getting books to kids when the books will yield the greatest benefit. To that end, a program called Books on Break is designed to counteract the erosion of learning that happens when kids are away from school for 12 weeks. Students in need get to choose 10 books at the start of summer to take home.
Every child should have the littered landscape of books in their home that my kids and I had.
Ginger Young, director of Book Harvest
Volunteer Gina Sprenger of Chapel Hill finds great reward in the children’s reactions. “They are so excited to choose their own and that they get to keep them forever,” Sprenger said. “They seem to not believe it. … They hug the books. And they are proud to call them their own.”
“This past summer, I’m really proud to say that we reached [more than] 18,000 children in four school systems in three counties,” Young said. That included every elementary school in Durham.
Complementing Books on Break is another program called Book Babies, launched in 2013. Book Harvest enrolls newborns and their families, establishing a five-year relationship. Over that time, a Book Harvest volunteer visits each family a dozen times to deliver new books – more than 100 total – and coach the parents in how to nurture their child’s literacy.
“The work to get a child reading proficiently in third grade starts at birth,” Young said. “So there’s a nice eight-year window when we can help.”
Next spring, the first class of Book Babies will graduate from the program and enter kindergarten. And researchers from Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy will follow them, Geffner said, “in a longitudinal, randomized, controlled trial to evaluate the effect on kindergarten readiness of the Book Babies program.”
Young is still working on organizing funds to fully support the six-year study. An individual underwrote the first two years, but “the burden is on us now that we’re ending Year One to go raise the rest of the funds,” she said.
In the coming year, she expects more expansion in all programs. In conjunction with the National Book Foundation’s “Book-Rich Environment” initiative, Book Harvest plans to bring more books to Durham’s public housing communities to help them become “springboards for literacy.”
Book Babies will enroll another 80 families, with 140 new families taking part in the research project. That will make a total of about 355 families “in the full experience of Book Babies next year,” Young said. Books on Break is on track to expand as well.
January will see the group’s biggest annual event, the Dream Big Book Drive at Durham Central Park, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “We invite people to honor Dr. King’s legacy that day by donating books,” Young said. Last year, the event yielded more than 48,000 books.
Young welcomes support from the community at any time. “If you have books to donate,” she said, “we need them. If you could spend $7 on a Spanish copy of ‘The Snowy Day’ by Ezra Jack Keats, we need that book. Really badly.” Volunteers are always needed to sort books in the back of the Book Harvest office, or to deliver books to the places where kids are.
“There is a way for every single person on the street to be a part of the solution to this problem of book access,” Young said. “We’re trying to chase out book deserts and replace them with book-rich environments everywhere kids go.”
2501 University Drive Durham, N.C. 27707
Contact: Daniele Berman, 252-497-BOOK
Description: Book Harvest’s mission is to provide books and share the power of literacy with babies, children and families in central North Carolina.
Donations needed: Books are always needed and funds to fuel our work preparing the books for distribution.
Volunteers needed: Volunteers run book drives, sort and count the donated books, act as liaisons to our book distribution partners, stock bookshelves, serve as “personal shoppers” for kids selecting books, help staff our office and help raise funds and run events. Minimum volunteer time commitment: In just an hour, you can gather books from home to donate. In just two hours, you can email your neighborhood listserv asking for donations of books to be left on your porch, gather them and deliver them to us.
$10 would: Pay the shipping fees for 15 new children’s books from First Book, or purchase four new board books bought at discount at the First Book Marketplace to gift to a newborn.
$10 would: Buy five picture books for a student to take home to keep forever.
$20 would: Enable us to provide a local child with a home library of books to read again and again.
$50 would: Stock one of our community-based bookshelves for an entire week, giving children in low-income communities ready access to hundreds of books to take home and keep for their very own; or supply a bag of 10 brand new board books that we will provide to Medicaid-eligible newborns and their parents enrolled in our Book Babies program this winter; or enable us to provide 12 new Spanish-language books to children growing up in dual-language households.