Updated July 24, 2020

Books are a torch during times of darkness and human searching.

(Sure, go ahead and call us biased.)

In March of this year, as the skies over our world seemed to turn black, and we all wondered what would happen next – Books for Keeps looked at the 80,000 books in our warehouse as a beacon of hope.

We couldn’t wait for next school year when it would (might?) be safe to give them away through our traditional, school-based program. This impatience, this insistence that our mission is more critical now than ever, is what is behind our still-in-process response to the pandemic: delivering more than 62,000 books directly to students’ homes.

When schools suspended in-person instruction in March we knew we had to act – and quickly – to use those books as a source of hope. In fact, we looked at the books in our warehouse as a very real lifeline that could tether children to their educational futures, to their love of reading, and even to their sense of self.

(As of right now, children in Georgia and elsewhere have been out of school for more than four months – with at least one more to go, and longer delays to return in some counties.)

And so, in March, we embarked on a plan to distribute books to children in the schools we serve using an online ordering process, with fulfillment happening with the help of volunteers in our warehouse and for-profit partners. It felt just crazy enough to work.

And as of late July we’ve hand-delivered some 43,000 books to children – plus worked with a for-profit partner to deliver another 17,000 books via FedEx. And we’re still going, delivering the final orders packed in our warehouse, and reaching out to partners to help us meet children where they are. Because there is much to do.

We’re not web developers. We aren’t a major retailer. Nor are we logistics experts.

And yet –

We built, customized, and launched an e-commerce website in about five weeks with the help of volunteers, supporters, and a lot of self-taught skills. (This, we couldn’t have done without the guidance and patronage of RoundSphere, an Athens-based tech firm.)

We designed a process to fill orders of free books, using just 3.5 paid staff and a cadre of volunteers – while following strict safety protocols and prioritizing the health and wellbeing of our people. (By the way, those volunteers have logged more than 1,300 hours with us between April and late-July!)

We devised a delivery system that leveraged partners, friends, and the know-how of fellow nonprofit agencies. (Huge shout-outs here to the Office of Service Learning at UGA, Clarke County School District personnel, Family Connection-Communities in Schools Neighborhood Leaders, and the Athens Community Council on Aging).

As we built this system, we had to acknowledge that it would only allow us to reach one segment of our population in Clarke County. While it’s our home county, it only accounts for about two-thirds of the children we serve. The other third are scattered across five schools in three counties (Fulton, Elbert, and Warren).

We knew we couldn’t leave those families in the dark – their access needs are as great as (and sometimes more acute than) our Clarke County families. For them, we reached out to our partners in the bookseller business.

The cool thing about this model we’ve built over more than a decade is that it gives us relationships with for-profit entities who are just as passionate as we are about access to books. The folks at The Reading Warehouse in South Carolina were immediately supportive of our pitch: to build a catalog of books for students to choose from, with us gathering orders and addresses, and with them handling the fulfillment and shipping. And we’ve done it all within our pre-pandemic budget.

In total, more than 5,300 orders placed with us for a bag or a box of 12 free books – that’s 63,600 books being delivered directly to students’ doorsteps this summer, either by a volunteer or via FedEx.

Of those, 3,900 orders are being handled in our Athens warehouse thanks to a bevy of dedicated (and hearty) volunteers. Wearing a mask to work in an 85-degree warehouse is not for the feint of heart! As of this update, we *just* finished packing all of those orders, and are working with volunteers to deliver the final bags to Athens-area families.

This problem-solving spirit has also allowed us to satisfy a long-held goal: to reach every single elementary school in Clarke County. This year threatened to bust that goal. But we made a promise to add Timothy Road and Chase Street elementary schools to our program – and BFK keeps its promises.

However, we still haven’t even reached about 2,000 elementary-aged students in Clarke County. So, earlier this month, we launched some extended access inititatives with partners like Family Connection-Communities in Schools and CCSD. Their incredible educators, site coordinators, and neighborhood leaders are taking pre-packed bags of books into high-need neighborhoods and to community feeding sites. In some cases, they are going door-to-door asking if a family placed an order of books for their student or students – and offering an age-appropriate bag on site.

We thought we were done – that we had reached all of the students we could. But it’s a testament to the power of partnerships and of creative thinking that we’re getting even more books to some of the students who need them most.

As always, we simply could not have done it without volunteers, donors, and supporters from the community.

Man, oh man, are we grateful for our community.

Thank you for believing in us. But, more importantly, thank you for believing in the kids we serve – that their futures are critical to the health and vitality of our communities, and they are worth investing in. Thank you for helping bring them light in this time of darkness.