Last month, Executive Director Leslie Hale announced she would be stepping down from Books for Keeps after eight years as its first paid executive director. What follows is a fond farewell, including a note at the end about how you can keep up with her, if you wish.

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It’s hard to know where to start in summing up eight years – eight years that have been formative, full of growth, and defined by hard-fought change for Books for Keeps (not to mention for myself).

So, I’ll start from a place that is always fitting, and that I’ve increasingly learned the importance of over time: I’ll say thank you first.

I’m overwhelmed with gratitude for the people who trusted me as the first paid employee of Books for Keeps (particularly Founder Melaney Smith and then-Board President Vicky Wilkins). I remain forever grateful that Melaney was willing to hand the reins to me, entrusting me with this baby nonprofit born out of literal blood, sweat, and tears. Thank you, Melaney, from the bottom of my heart.

There are so many interns, board members, early employees, and volunteers who came along for the ride as we figured out how to do this thing. There are far too many of you to name – but please know that my heart bursts to think of the ways you contributed, and you trusted my leadership when I sometimes didn’t trust in it myself.

And donors – the incredible people who trust us with their hard-earned money, believing that we will exercise care and prudence with it – and that we will do something that is both effective and life-changing for children in this community. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I can absolutely say this organization is changing lives with your investments. And that’s what leaves me most overwhelmingly – almost achingly – grateful. Every single year, we have children come up to us or a volunteer to say that these are the first books they have ever owned, or that they read their books OVER and OVER last summer. Parents tell us these books opened new worlds to their reluctant readers, and helped build home libraries when they could scarce afford to do so with their own resources.

In 2020, we lost the ability to see children’s faces as they picked out their books, but the emails and phone calls and photos we received from families about how outrageously grateful they were… well, it let me see the work we do through a new lens. It helped me reach new levels of satisfaction in this work – not because I didn’t already see how necessary it was, but because the community resoundingly told us how essential these books were to saving their sanity and their summers last year.

And what I’ve seen during my eight years at BFK has been life-changing for me, too. During my time at Books for Keeps I started my own family, having two baby girls – now 6 and 3 years old, respectively. I’ve watched a joy for reading grow in them, and seen so much of the literacy research I’ve immersed myself in professionally happening in real-time under my own roof. It is nothing short of magical to watch it happening in my own children, to know the power of holding my daughter in my lap and reading Ella the Elephant for the 5,000th time.

I’ve watched my rising second-grader develop from a rather begrudging independent reader during her after-lunch “quiet time,” to one who devours a Junie B. Jones book in one sitting after we tuck her into bed at night. And I’ve been reminded of the thing we say all of the time to teachers and families: kids need to be able to choose books for themselves, and to approach reading in their own time.

Underpinning this gratitude is something I hope people will take away from this moment: my leaving BFK is just as much a new beginning for the organization as it is the close of a chapter. Books for Keeps has the incredible opportunity to hire its second executive director (third, counting Melaney as the first, unpaid director). Knowing how many nonprofits don’t make it past start-up stage, this is a fact to marvel at in and of itself.

The person who comes after me will inherit a terrific staff of dedicated, passionate, and skilled people who believe whole-heartedly in the mission and values of Books for Keeps. (Rainey and Justin, getting to work with you has been both a delight and an honor. The care you both bring to your work inspires me every day.) The person who follows me will also get to work with just about the finest board of directors of any organization I know: people who are strategic thinkers AND folx willing to roll up their sleeves to get things done. People who ask tough questions about budgeting AND about equity of our service model.

Leaving this group is one of the things that fills me with sadness. It’s also one of the things that gives me confidence in Books for Keeps’ continued ability to thrive.

The next executive director also inherits a solid, diverse funding base of grants, individual donations, business sponsors, and – yes, the day is coming! – fundraising events. The organization just recently started work under an exciting new strategic plan that calls for us to delve deeper on the literacy needs of our service communities.

It’s under that new strategic plan that Books for Keeps is assuming stewardship of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library (DPIL) in Clarke County starting in October. We just announced this news in collaboration with the United Way of Northeast Georgia (the current home of DPIL in Clarke County) this week, and everyone at BFK is so incredibly excited to bring this program into Books for Keeps.

Meanwhile, our newest employee, Christine Mallozzi, is developing programming that will provide both direct service to families and train-the-trainer opportunities for fellow human service nonprofits and child-serving agencies to help as many people as possible harness the power of books in their homes.

We want to infuse these partners and families with the wealth of knowledge that’s available about how to grow students’ love of reading and acquisition of language, and how simple these things are to incorporate into daily routines. Christine, who holds a PhD in literacy education from UGA, is coming at this work with an asset-based mentality: rather than assuming caregivers aren’t doing any of the right things, she and Books for Keeps are starting from a place of enhancing and growing the things they are already doing to grow and nurture their children’s minds. (BFK will roll out a video introducing you to Christine very soon!)

Y’all, I’m so excited about the things on the horizon for Books for Keeps. I can’t wait to see what this organization does next. I can’t wait to support it personally. I hope you’ll continue to do so, as well.

Thank you for the privilege of leading Books for Keeps, for the trust you placed in me and in this organization, and for loving the books and the kids and the mission as much as I have (and still do). It’s been the honor of a lifetime.

p.s. I won’t be going far! I’m leaving to become Executive Director of MENTOR Georgia, a new state-wide affiliate of the National Mentoring Partnership, housed at the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development at UGA. If you’d like to stay in touch, you can reach me at leslie.williams.hale@gmail.com.