Since its inception in 2002, Tampa, Fla.–based Bess the Book Bus has donated more than 450,000 books to underserved children in 48 states. The vehicle stops at schools, Boys & Girls Clubs, and other locations that may be in need of a literacy boost. Eleven years in, founder Jennifer Francis shows no sign of slowing down. She and a few volunteers manage the bus’s operation; the current Bess was donated by Mercedes last summer, and has traveled 32,000 miles and counting. Bess the Book Bus recently wrapped the fourth leg of its fifth nationwide tour,, stopping in Detroit; Sheboygan, Wisc., Buffalo, N.Y.; and Nashville.
Francis was inspired to launch her charity by the childhood memory of her grandmother Nana Bess driving her into Oxford, Mass., every week to buy her a new book. Bess the Book Bus is currently partnering with Transitions Optical and VSP Vision Care Mobile Vision Clinic, and the Citgo Fueling Good program; to date, the bus has nine sponsors, including Townsend Press, Capstone, and First Book, which provide titles to help stock the vehicle. “Right now we have a big combination of books on the bus,” Francis said – everything from graphic novels to nonfiction titles, which are distributed to about 25,000 kids a year. “The sponsors on board with Bess put in physical labor as well as financial help,” Francis added. “You can see where everyone’s money is going. In the future, I hope more big name publishers will donate.”
To help keep costs down on the road, the Bess team stays on campgrounds and at KOAs. While Francis hopes to one day have a hotel sponsorship, she doesn’t complain about the outdoor accommodations. “I’m just astonished that I get to do this,” she said. “It’s a pretty easy way to make a difference, providing exposure to a lot of fun stories and access to books.”
As for the books themselves, for now, the donations will remain physical books. Said Francis, “Digital books have their place, and I love audio books, but the look on a child’s face when he or she gets their own physical book in his or her hands is a beautiful thing. Books get a lot of hugs here.”