For most people, the WHAT is a no-brainer.

Books are easy to get behind. It’s easy to grasp the importance of reading and literacy in building a successful life. Almost everyone who works with us – from staff to donors to volunteers to board members – can point to a way that books (or one single book) transformed their lives.

So, books – and making them easy to get access to – are the easy part for us to sell.

It’s all of the other details that get stickier. The WHY’s.

Why 12 books? (Because the research we founded our program on points to this as the sweet spot for moving literacy skills during summer.)

Why give them away rather than loan them? (Because pride of ownership and removing the fear of losing or damaging a book liberate many children and families to truly embrace this process.)

And then we come to the big question. The question we’ve been driving toward and aligning strategy around for the past five years: 

Why those schools?

Each school we serve is high-need. Every single one. We started out at just a few schools here in Athens that represent the most extreme need: 90 percent or more free/reduced-price lunch. As we grew outside of Athens, we targeted schools in Atlanta and in rural areas with the same characteristics.

And a few years later we set our sights on a big goal: to serve every child attending a Clarke County elementary school.

We’re finally fulfilling that goal this year – reaching every single child in grades K through 5 at all 14 elementary schools in Athens.

We couldn’t be more excited, and we want you to be excited too – here’s WHY.

Our home county has a lot of need. With a child poverty rate of more than 30 percent, which outstrips state and national averages, our community as a whole needs to do more to lift up its children. We also see incredible things when every child has the same opportunity and experience.

On Books for Keeps day, no child is singled out or treated differently because of perceived intellectual ability – or ability to pay – or interest level. Every student is treated equitably and with respect. Over the years, we have worked with many students who started the day saying they didn’t want any books – and left their media center with a bag full of 12 books they couldn’t wait to read. It’s easy to sideline a child because of our perceptions of them. Big things happen when we meet kids where they are – with books for every reading level and volunteers who carry no judgment about what types of books children are choosing for themselves.

Additionally, Athens elementary schools are, on average, serving 92 percent low-income children, based on federal indicators. That population is also highly transient – with as much as 30 percent of Athens school-aged population moving three times or more per school year.

Every year at schools we serve, on Books for Keeps day we hear teachers say, “oh, that student just moved.” Sometimes the student moves to a school we are not serving. More and more, though, we are catching students at their new school – reaching them as one saving grace, one constant in their lives when other things are changing. 

If you’re the parent of a child who receives books – or will for the first time this year (hooray, Chase Street and Timothy Road Elementary Schools!) – I invite you to come volunteer with us. If you have watched these books come home and thought, “we don’t need these – we can afford books,” I promise, your child needs these books too. Your child needs chances to pick what he or she is excited to read, unencumbered by someone else’s expectations. And if you still feel uncomfortable receiving something for free, please consider making a donation. $30 sends one child home with a bag of books. $60 sponsors two kids. $600 sponsors an entire classroom. 

For avid readers of many socioeconomic backgrounds, libraries were their constant. Or maybe it was books from the book fair. Or perhaps a teacher who loaned classroom books for the summer. Perhaps that’s why books have been found to be twice as important in predicting a child’s educational attainment as their father’s education level.

We can’t assume that every child has access, though.

And moreover, many children do not – even children from middle- and upper-income families. Electronic devices have pushed aside so many other learning opportunities.

All of this should be treated as a crisis when we consider that book ownership is directly tied to the enjoyment of books. Children from low-income families are far less likely than their peers to have access to books outside the school day and school year – some studies have found as few as one book per 300 children living in high-poverty neighborhoods.

These are the facts. At stake is a generation of children that could be lost as readers – finding no joy in books, no connection to their education, and no driving force to learn more about the world around them – simply because they did not have the opportunity to fall in love with reading.

What we provide to students is so much more than a bag of 12 books. It’s the opportunity to fall in love with reading as a pleasurable pursuit. It’s a chance to be on the same level as their peers for one day, with every single child participating and no child singled out or sidelined because of lack of ability to pay.

And we’re doing this at every single Athens elementary school because we believe that – rather than sacrifice a generation of children to a future in which intellectual curiosity feels intimidating and impossible – we can build up an entire generation of children to see themselves as enthusiastic readers. 

It’s because we believe books are a gateway to understanding the universe and the boundless possibilities contained within it for every person, regardless of their life circumstances. We believe providing children with open, equal access to books allows them to connect the joy of reading with the thrill of discovery, laying the foundation for a successful, fulfilling life.