Sometimes we’re at a loss for words here at Books for Keeps. If you’ve met any of our three staff or our dozen-plus board members, you are probably laughing right now. Real hard.

It’s true, though. Sitting down to write this post, it was hard to figure out where to start – what to focus on. There was simply so much good to go around this year at book distributions that it’s hard to wrap our brains around – from giving away our 500,000th book (and way, way beyond) to celebrating 10 years to gathering new insights into our students reading habits.

We served the same number of students as last year (nearly 8,000) and gave away the same number of books (roughly 95,000), yet this year felt big in so many ways.

So, where to start in describing it?

This is where we fall back to those wiser and more eloquent than us: the children we serve.

Among our core values and core behaviors: (1) focusing on stakeholders as individuals and (2) creating joyful opportunities for children to become owners of books. They are our future voters and decision-makers. It really is all about them because – one day – the world will be in their hands.

“I’m so excited I could explode,” one fifth-grader told a volunteer at Whit Davis Elementary School. This, in response to a simple survey question asking about her level of excitement over her books.

For the first time this year, we sought to gather more information from our student participants – right at the moment when they chose their books. What are we hoping to learn?

  • How motivated are they to read their books?
  • How many of their 12 books do they expect to read this summer? (And, when they come back this fall, how many can they tell us they did read?)
  • Who reads at home with them – and who do they read to?
  • How many years have they received books from BFK?
  • How many of their books did they read last summer?
  • And what are the interactions between these factors? How does reading in the home affect their excitement level over reading?

It will be a while before we have real numbers and hard insights to share from these surveys. But, some of the most remarkable things students shared with us weren’t answers to these fairly straight-forward questions. It was when we asked “why” that really incredible things came out.

A young man named Justin told us that he was “very excited” about his Books for Keeps books; then he added: “And I don’t really like reading.” When we prodded a little more, he said that the books he usually reads are assigned at school. The 12 books he picked out on Books for Keeps day just feel different. On that day, given a choice about what to read, he felt excited – and it was a surprise even to him.

Students talked about stretching upward with their books. “I’m trying to find books that will get me ready for sixth grade,” one fifth-grader said.

Others talked about reaching back to give someone else a hand up. “I plan to read to my 4-year-old sister to help her be ready to start school next year,” one fourth-grader told a volunteer at Whitehead Road Elementary School.

And children keyed into the power of books to transport them somewhere else entirely. One kindergartener picked up a book about the Galapagos Islands, and grew more and more wide-eyed as a volunteer described this special chain of islands and how they helped form our understanding of biology and evolution. “One day when I go there, I’ll take my book,” she responded to the volunteer.

Still more children talked about the power of books to keep them firmly rooted in the present. “Sometimes when I start reading, I can’t stop. Even at night, when I’m not supposed to,” one third-grader at Winterville Elementary School confided in a volunteer.

And those volunteers – oh, man, those volunteers. We were blessed to work with some amazing folks this year. More than 500 unique individuals volunteered their time with us between April 8 and May 16 – for a combined 1,532 hours.

Some of our fellow nonprofit professionals joined us, as did folks from our local library. Long-time donors got to help give away books for the first time. And we witnessed so many lovely interactions between kids and caring adults – new connections formed that will follow those children home, attached to their books as a feeling of subliminal joy and love.

“The thing I’ll remember most are the faces of the children right when they walk in and see the books,” one volunteer commented. It’s pretty much the best thing together – like getting to catch that moment a child sees what Santa left under the Christmas tree.

Ten years ago, the seed of this organization formed when Melaney Smith, our founder, learned about a couple of children who weren’t looking forward to summer. It started because of children who didn’t have books at home, and couldn’t stand the idea of a summer spent without books.

Our mission has grown and our resolve has hardened because we watch the way that these books open up new worlds and forge new connections for kids in mind-blowing ways.

Some of our most favorite stories from this year came from parents who gushed about their children’s books. These stories paint the work we do in a new light, making clear why this program is needed by kids from every background, every neighborhood, and every ability level.

This note and the accompanying photo came from Jennifer, the parent of two Whitehead Road students:

“Conner doesn’t read for fun. Conner reads because he is forced to and when he does, he fights it. Even his favorite Harry Potter books are avoided unless something is leveraged. Here, on his own, he grabbed his Books for Keeps book and quietly read after breakfast. While we may not be a family lacking in books, your mission has inspired him to read for enjoyment. Something I have tried and failed to do countless times. This simple moment means the world to me.”

To every single person who had a hand in making moments like this possible – from our donors, to book drive participants, to volunteers, to teachers laying the ground-work every day – thank you. Kids in our community are 95,000 books richer this spring with your help.

To enjoy more of these wonderful words straight from our students, make sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram for our #SeasonOfThanks campaign highlighting more of the wonderful thank-you notes we receive from those sweet kiddos!