Harvesting books to boost child literacy

By Todd Cohen

DURHAM, N.C. — Growing up in Atlanta, Ginger Young became a “voracious reader who thrived in childhood because of books, and took great comfort and solace and inspiration from books.”

Then, starting in the mid-1990s and living in the Triangle, she says, she took her own children to the public library once a week so they would have a “childhood full of books and reading and vocabulary development.”

But she also saw a troubling gap in kids’ access to books based on their parents’ income.

Children’s opportunity to get books “should not be connected to how much money their parents make,” she says. “There is no reason every child in our community can’t grow up in a book-rich home.”

So in 2011, Young tested an idea: She asked friends and colleagues to donate their own children’s books. In return, she promised to distribute them to children who otherwise might not get a chance to read or own a book.

Within two weeks, her garage was stocked with bags and boxes filled with 6,000 books. By the end of the month, donations had grown to 10,000.

That was the start of Book Harvest, a Durham nonprofit that now has distributed nearly 700,000 books through home visits to families with newborn babies, and through schools, nonprofits and other partners.

Operating with an annual budget of $728,000, eight full-time employees, and nearly 500 volunteers, including 100 who volunteer regularly, Book Harvest works to get books into the hands of children up to age 18, and to promote literacy for kids and families.

It operates four programs in the Triangle that provide a “continuum” of books and literacy support based on a child’s age.

It also is developing plans to serve more people with its own programs, and find ways for other communities to adopt those programs.

And it is heading a collaborative effort in Durham that is part of a national initiative in over 300 communities to improve reading proficiency by the end of third grade.

In Durham, the effort aims to increase to 70 percent in 2025 from 45.7 percent in 2016 the number of children who read on grade level at the end of third grade — and to 66 percent by 2025 from 33.2 percent in 2016 the number from low-income homes who read at that level.

Key to the developing the most effective local strategies to inspire children to read will be parental leadership, says Young, founder and executive director of Book Harvest.

“The people who can best chart that path are the parents,” she says.

Book Harvest gears its delivery of books and literacy support to a child’s age.

Its Books Babies program, for example, is based on research that shows 80 percent of the brain is developed by age three, “which means we have to really front-load book access for families where there’s a newborn,” Young says.

So, through referrals from partner agencies such as Durham Connect, a nurse home-visiting program, Book Harvest enrolls newborns and their families starting six weeks to two months after birth.

It provides them with books. And three to four times a year for the first three years, and then two to three times a year for the next two years, it visits families’ homes and offers literacy coaching for parents.

Currently, 260 families are enrolled, each getting 20 books a year.

To address the challenge of summer “learning loss” for students while school is out, Book Harvest offers Books on Break, a program that provides 10 free books at the end of the school year the children select themselves — a total of nearly 71,000 books this year — for nearly 19,000 students at 44 public schools in Durham, Orange and Chatham counties and Chapel Hill-Carrboro public schools.

Once a week, through its Community Book Bank, it also stocks shelves it has set up in the waiting rooms of about 65 partner organizations– such as social service agencies, health clinics, and after-school and tutoring programs, mainly in Durham and Orange counties — where children can select books and take them to build their own home libraries.

That effort, which was Book Harvest’s initial program, this year will distribute just over 100,000 books to children.

And at Books to Go events it hosts three times a year, teachers and officials from about  80 schools and nonprofits that work with middle-school and high-school students can visit Book Harvest to pick books the students then can select and keep for their home libraries.

This year, that effort is expected to put at least 30,000 books into the hands of students.

This year, Book Harvest also launched a service that twice a week sends text messages to parents who subscribe, offering tips on reading to children, and on summer reading opportunities at libraries and other locations.

Partnerships are central to Book Harvest’s work, Young says.

In partnership with the Durham Housing Authority and Durham County Library, for example, Book Harvest aims to “make sure every child that lives in each of DHA’s eight housing communities, has a big stack of books next to their bed.”

It also provides “literacy-enrichment activities” for those children through after-school and summer programs in those eight communities.

Ultimately, Young says, improving child literacy depends on raising community awareness of the need, and getting the community involved in addressing it.

“It’s all about civic engagement and the public narrative about what is acceptable for our children,” Young says.

“There are hundreds of thousands of books, and thousands of book donors and volunteers who are well on their way to creating book-rich environments throughout our community,” she says. “What we are going to do next is to take that transactional experience of book provision, which is what we started with, and turn it into how we transform outcomes for children, to go from transactional to transformational.”

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