If 2020 was a year for simply surviving – getting by with whatever semblance of normalcy we could scrape together – 2021 has been a year for reminding ourselves just how resilient we can be, even in the face of continued hardship.

The schools and the students we serve are a reminder for us of this fact every day – and it’s why we’re excited to share final numbers from our spring book distributions:

  • 108,000 books delivered – either to students’ schools or directly to their homes with the help of our nonprofit partners at First Book.
  • We served 9,437 students in grades Pre-K through 5, attending schools in five counties.
  • We had the privilege in this strange year of expanding our service population – adding grades Pre-K and fifth in Elbert County thanks to a state literacy grant, and adding an entire school, Morgan County Elementary, because of the hard work of their media specialist, Kathi Edwards, and a grant from the Walton EMC Foundation. (Morgan County third- through fifth-graders got to choose four books each. We hope to expand our offerings to a full 12-books-per-student in future years, dependent on funding.)
  • It took 2,127 hours by volunteers between February and mid-May to set the warehouse up and then pack student orders (more on that below), though it was a pleasure working in the late-winter and early spring months as opposed to the sweltering days we spent in the warehouse between May and August of 2020 packing and delivering student orders!
  • More than 292 unique volunteers worked with us throughout this process, filling 553 volunteer spots across 71 shifts. On average, that’s 5 hours contributed on average by each volunteer – a value of $60,707 in donated labor.
  • What feels most significant to us as a team is the way volunteers continued to trust us with their health and safety even as we worked alongside each other masked and (mostly) unvaccinated for the first months of the year.
  • This all brings our total distributed books, to date, to about 780,000.

We truly could not have pulled this off without the buy-in and leadership of our schools – particularly our school media specialists. For folx not in the education field: sometime in the past two decades, the job of school librarian has morphed into one that covers the gamut from IT specialist to herder of cats. We asked our media specialists to call on those two skills, particularly, to help lead students (and, by extension, teachers) through the process of ordering books from an online system.

Why the online system? Following our mantra of “plan for the worst, hope for the best,” we had to consider a springtime in which we would not be allowed inside of the schools to give away books in person. When January hit and some partner schools reverted to remote schooling models, we felt confident we had made the best decision to guarantee service to all students.

As with last year, student choice – the ability of a child to pick his or her own books – remained sacrosanct for our team. The research is clear on this: if we want children to read for pleasure, we have to let them choose their reading materials.

Short of dropping the books off at a school and asking the media specialist to set up a BFK distribution in their media center on their own – without the 2 dozen volunteers we bring to each school on average – we knew the only way to pull it off was to use the online shopping system we leveraged last year with the help of Athens-based tech firm RoundSphere.

(To be clear, this scenario was a nonstarter. We know how much work media specialists have to do in normal times. Our in-person book distributions, which take place across two to three days at a school, are a finely calibrated and chaotic ballet of new classes filing into the media center every 20 minutes, volunteers frantically restocking books, and interacting personally with the students.)

Still, we asked a lot of our media specialists and – at schools in Clarke County where teachers had to pack individual student orders from the boxes delivered to them – we asked a lot of our teachers. In order to make the logistics work from our small Athens warehouse, and without having access to a fleet of our own delivery vehicles, student orders were bundled into boxes by classroom, requiring teachers to open anywhere from 2 to 6 boxes of books for their students and match the books in those boxes up with student order forms.

Educators: we truly could not have done it without you. Because of you, 9,400 children in five counties have home libraries to grow on and dream with through the summer. Thank you, from our whole team.

Volunteers, donors, and stakeholders: thank you for trusting us with your time, your dollars, your word of mouth. Whenever we had hiccups along the way, we thought of the kids relying on us and we thought of the people trusting us with their resources. It’s what helped us power through.

Books for Keeps is an organization that keeps its word. Last year, we kept our word to serve the students of 20 elementary schools – the most we’ve ever reached – but we couldn’t reach every student who was eligible because of the challenges of schools closing and families scattering (physically and mentally). Reaching two-thirds of eligible students felt like a triumph given the circumstances. But missing one-third of our student population with last year’s distributions hurt. We vowed not to let it happen again.

At every school, we had a plan for how to reach students who didn’t place an order – whether by dropping off extra books for teachers to pack them a custom bag, or working with partners like Benteen Elementary in Atlanta to package a drive-through book fair. Again, this was possible only because of the buy-in and energy and passion of our partner schools.

Will we do things again this way in the future? No. Our team is eager to get back into the schools and distribute books in person. While it’s still a ton of work logistically, it’s nothing compared to the insanity of our staff and volunteers pretending to be a miniature Amazon, as we’ve done for the past 14 months.

Have we learned valuable lessons that will inform how we respond to student needs and package books in the future? Absolutely. We like to think there have been opportunities for innovation and growth and understanding in these strange days, to make some sense and some silver lining out of an incredibly difficult time.

There’s another little thing we like to say around here: onward and upward.