Books for Keeps Overcomes Pandemic Obstacles to Keep Distributing Books

By Lee Shearer, Athens Banner-Herald

The novel coronavirus pandemic was a body blow for Athens’ Books for Keeps, as it has been for many businesses and charities.

But the 10-year-old nonprofit came up with a plan to survive and continue with its mission, even broadening that mission.

Begun in 2009 by an Athens woman named Melaney Smith, the organization aims to prevent what educators call “summer slide,” when students — particularly low-income students — lose a portion of what they learned during the school year.

Their idea was to distribute free books to children in grades kindergarten through five to take home over the summer. Since Smith started off at one school in 2009, the organization has steadily grown, first as an all-volunteer group and now a nonprofit with three employees.

It has also grown in number of schools it serves and the numbers of books the mostly-volunteer group distributes.

This spring, Books for Keeps was looking to hit two milestones. For the first time, it would serve all of Clarke County’s public elementary schools, in addition to two schools in Atlanta and two in Elberton , and the number of books going out would top more than 100,000 for the first time.

COVID-19 shut down schools in March, along with Books for Keeps school-based book distributions, but a few weeks into the pandemic lockdowns, the group came up with another way to distribute books.

In previous normal years, the organization distributed the books one school at a time during spring, bringing truckloads of books to each school and then inviting them in grade by grade to pick out what they wanted.

That was no longer an option with schools shut down.

With in-school distribution out, Books for Keeps came up with another idea — why not take the books to where the children live?

With the help of web developer Brandon Checketts, founder of the Athens company Roundsphere, they figured out how to do it, said Books for Keeps executive director Leslie Hale. The solution was an e-commerce site set where children could browse available titles and pick out their free books, choosing from classics such as Amelia Bedelia and Nancy Drew and current popular titles such as the Magic Treehouse, Fly Guy and Who Was? series.

At first, the Clarke County School District was able to help with the distribution, loading up book orders along with the free school meals school bus drivers were delivering to neighborhoods around Athens as the pandemic took hold. Teachers also helped, placing orders for their students and picking out some of the books.

When the school district reduced its distribution schedule to two days a week, there was no longer room for the books on school buses, for the growing number of book orders, so now volunteers are doing the delivering, family by family.

The effort started slow, but as teachers began to help, it picked up steam. In the second week, between May 11 and May 15, the new e-commerce site recorded 1,200 orders, Hale said.

Orders are up to 3,500 now, said Books for Keeps Community Development Coordinator Rainey Lynch Tuesday. Around 2,500 orders are filled, and volunteers on Tuesday cut into that backlog by about 100 orders of 12 books each, plus extra board books for families with children under 5.

The organization has also been sharing donated books to other organizations in need of books, such as the Athens Community Council on Aging and Oconee County’s Extra Special People, Lynch said.

“We’ll do everything we can do to get books in the hands of people who need them.” she said.

Now the 12,000 square foot Books for Keeps warehouse on Athena Drive has become a kind of fulfillment center, Hale said – one with social distancing to protect the health of volunteers.

Inside, masks are required, and only five volunteers at a time can be among the roughly 180,000 books stacked in the huge warehouse, so they can stay far away from each other.

As more volunteers were arriving and departing outside, loading up their cars and SUVs with orders they would deliver to each individual family.

“It’s just amazing what they’re doing,” said one volunteer working Tuesday, Brenda Rawson.

“It’s remarkable that an organization with three employees and a couple of interns was able to do this,” said Rawson, a volunteer for the group since its beginning in 2009.

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Books for Keeps is a partner of the Get Georgia Reading Campaign.


Krystin Dean
GaFCP Communications Specialist