Community Comes Together to Launch Lending Libraries in Johnson County

By Kristie Brantley
Johnson Family Connection Collaborative Coordinator

We recently launched our lending libraries project in February, placing 13 boxes filled with books all around our community. Our goal is to have parents reading to their children from birth and instill a love of reading throughout each child’s life.

We know the importance of reading comprehension. We started looking at literacy for our community based on our schools’ Lexile percentages and Georgia Milestones scores in English language arts a few years ago. By the time students get to high school, their Lexile level should be proficient or higher. Many or our students are reading at a basic level, which means they aren’t reading at a level to always comprehend.

Improving literacy is one of our Collaborative’s priorities for Johnson County, and we regularly work with community partners to implement initiatives revolving around reading in our community. We’ve partnered with a local church for the past five years to have Ferst Foundation for Childhood Literacy in our community and sponsor books for up to 65 children each year. We encourage enrollment of children who may be at a disadvantage for early literacy skills based on poverty and environmental issues.

Johnson County is a Get Georgia Reading Campaign community. During one of our meetings a few years ago, we got the idea to put books in places that children frequented with their parents. We began by putting a bookshelf in our town’s only laundromat. This took off and the books had to be replenished every couple of weeks.

At the time, middle school student Mary Grace Winfrey decided to focus on literacy for her 4-H community project. Her granddaddy built a small box that looked similar to a doghouse for her to put books in for children in a small town in our county. The idea continued to grow after Mary Grace spoke to our Collaborative about her community project.

Johnson County Schools Superintendent Eddie Morris said the school board would pay for all the materials, and we could have our middle and high school students in agriculture classes build the lending libraries. The students built nine of them, and we also received four old newspaper boxes from The Johnson Journal, our local newspaper.

We originally planned for fifth grade art students to paint the boxes last spring, but then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down our schools. Instead, former Johnson County Elementary School Media Specialist Sue Hall took the boxes home and graciously painted them in her garage. She uniquely decorated each library with characters from books, and her love of reading is very clear in the beautiful designs. Sue retired in May of 2020 but will continue to be a great resource for Family Connection and the school system as we continue this project for many years to come.

When it came time to install the boxes, I reached out to William Harrison, who has a landscaping business and all the tools needed to erect the libraries. He helped me install all of the lending libraries around our community and continues to seek additional locations for future sites. William doesn’t want to be in the spotlight—but this project could not have been completed without his help.

We placed the lending libraries in neighborhoods where we know there are many children. While putting up the boxes around the county, several middle school students told us they helped build the boxes. You could see the pride on their faces when we commended them for their work.

We started with two apartment complexes and the local housing authority, but once word got around and people saw our Facebook posts, community members started reaching out to our Collaborative asking for lending libraries to be placed in their neighborhoods.

Working with parents and children like Mary Grace—who still helps Family Connection maintain the lending library bookcase at the laundromat where it all started—to promote reading is so rewarding. We want to have books in the homes of every child and teenager in Johnson County.