The Children’s Book Bank in Portland, Ore., now in its ninth year, got its start in Michigan when Danielle Swope was looking for a meaningful way to part with the books her children had outgrown.
Swope worried that donating to the library or thrift store would end in resale; she wanted them to be given away for free, and “directly to kids who would need them.” She remembered her time at Teach for America and how her former high school students had very limited reading skills, and that their lack of exposure to books had affected their success. “This was in the early ’90s when there was a huge explosion of research around the connection between early childhood experiences and success later in school and in life,” Swope said.
So she brought her books to a local Head Start in Kalamazoo, and within a week her phone was ringing off the hook, with people asking, “Are you the book lady? How do I apply for books from your program? That’s when I knew there were lots of other kids that needed books. I also knew that if my family had books to give there must be other families [who had books to give].” So she started hosting book drives and before long she had amassed thousands of books.
But she was a mother of three small children at the time, and so the Michigan iteration of the project was more part-time and came to an end when the Swope family moved to Portland, Ore., in 2000. By then Swope had a fourth child, which delayed her plans to pick up the project. It wasn’t until 2007, after her kids were somewhat grown, that she was able to resume her passion and form the Children’s Book Bank full-time.
Swope calls Portland the “perfect place for a children’s book bank” because the city is “so green, has the greatest bookstore in the world, and volunteering is a big component of our community.” Since becoming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2008, CBB has organized more than 7,500 community volunteers to distribute more than 510,000 books to more than 50,000 children in need in the Portland area.
The general idea is that “kids need to have grown up with books before they step into our kindergartens,” she said. Swope’s children were surrounded by books, and she wanted the same experience for all kids.
“Of all the challenges and problems in the world, we can get books to kids,” Swope said. “This is something that we can actually do something about. There are tons of them out there from families like ours that have hundreds of books. We just needed a system of moving them from point A to point B.”
CBB operates out of a 1200 square foot warehouse, where volunteers “wipe off covers, erase the scribbles, and cherry pick out the best books.” Books arrive from individual donors and publishers, but the bulk come from book drives.
The books are then sorted by category and about 85% of them are deemed good enough to be gathered into “a thoughtful collection” of 14 books per child, which go into green bags, and are distributed to low-income families through a variety of social service agencies, Head Start programs, relief nurseries and health clinics. The bundles’ number of books increases “the likelihood that there’s something in there that captures a family’s attention.”
Swope said that while there is a sprinkling of similar organizations nationwide, most place books in schools to older children, whereas her model focuses on younger children, adding that the focus is on making sure families have books at home. Her volunteer crew spends significant time cleaning the books so that they look more new than used. “If you were to see one of our bundles, you’d be really surprised that these are were used books because they look so great.” That’s because Swope doesn’t want the books to feel like “hand-offs.”
One of the things the organization struggles with is finding diverse books. “To be perfectly honest, our books are coming from one part of the community that tends to be fairly white so our books really reflect a dominant white culture,” she said. “But the families we’re serving are much more culturally diverse. I haven’t figured out how to crack that nut, because we really want to be able to provide books to families that reflect our whole community and their community and that kids can see themselves in the book.” Swope said it’s partly a “publishing industry issue”; for now the only way to get diverse books is to buy them on the cheap. She said they are “planting the seed” that diverse titles benefit every child. “Right now when we get culturally diverse books we sort of match them up with culturally diverse families but our ultimate goal is that our bundles that kids get are all the same, and they all have diverse characters in them.”
While CBB’s main focus is on children under the age of five, they have a growing stack of books for older children. Swope recently got a call from a school librarian in search of books for older kids. The librarian cited a study where children from low-income families who couldn’t afford summer school took home books for the break and it made up for the loss of learning. That data compelled Swope to start hosting book events at schools where older children could “shop” for books to take home over summer vacation. “It’s when they aren’t in school or particularly summer vacation that that equity gap rears its ugly head again, because those kids don’t have as many books over the summer. We are trying to fill that gap.” Swope said what’s nice is about these book fairs is that students can choose books they are excited about. “Student choice is so important. Whereas for our little ones, we just put them in a bundle and push them out to the community. When the kids are older they need to be able to choose their books if they’re going to get jazzed about them.”
While Swope feels that the “magic” of CBB is its grassroots ability to bring in books and volunteers, she believes that growth is necessary. She is the process of negotiating a lease on a larger space, “which will open up all sorts of possibilities for us.” Currently CBB distributes roughly 80,000 to 85,000 books (from the 100,000 donated yearly) ,and she’d like to double that number, as well as expand the reach of locations where books are distributed. In 2014, CBB began a three-year partnership with Social Venture Partners Portland, which has provided an operating grant to help them expand.
CBB’s focus is on getting more books to kids, rather than fewer books to more kids. “We’re really about making that deep impact. We could take the same number of books and sprinkle them to more kids, but we want kids to get more books.” Put simply, Swope said, “Kids can’t have enough books.”