“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” ~Henry David Thoreau
It was 10.5 months ago that the Books for Keeps team started considering what felt like a truly crazy, moonshot style idea. We did it in response to a short-term crisis we knew could have profound long-term consequences.
In concrete terms, what it means is that we built a fully functioning e-Commerce website with our inventory of tens of thousands of books listed, for students to browse, so that we could deliver those free books directly to their homes while they were sheltering in place. (It still sounds crazy to type those words, all these months later.)
Between May and August, volunteers packed more than 53,000 books in our warehouse, a partner fulfilled another 15,000 books for outlying counties, and they were all delivered to students’ doorsteps using volunteer help and the magic of FedEx. We pivoted. We pivoted the heck out of it. And we delivered for more than 5,300 kids who we expected to see in their school media centers.
In late March of 2020, our organization felt certain that things would be weird for a while. And we knew we had to act to keep students’ minds engaged, to give them outlets to dream and explore, and to allow them to connect with reading as a joyful pursuit. We also knew we might have to move heaven and earth for our moonshot idea. And then, we knew this thing we worked to build so hard might become defunct again in a matter of months when things returned to normal.
Call this the year of continually adjusted expectations. Our tolerance for the abnormal has increased, and the way we embrace and leverage new solutions – ones that felt kooky 9 months ago – have become commonplace.
All of that is to say: this update is really about how we’re staying the course. Students in our partner schools will again have access to books through an online ordering process, facilitated by their schools and teachers. Books for Keeps will again be leveraging the technology we invested so many hours in, and which our partners and supporters at RoundSphere and X-Cart generously gave us access to. Students in our communities will not go the summer without great books to read.
Another exciting, and very new, development is the addition of a school in Morgan County: Morgan County Elementary School. This school will be served for the first time this year with four books per student thanks to a grant from the Walton EMC Foundation, secured by school media specialist Kathi Edwards. With Kathi and her school district leading the way, we hope to expand our service to students in Morgan County further in future years.
As we gear up for a second moonshot effort, we have a number of things working in our favor that were missing last year.
First, we have time on our side. In 2020, we had to make a HARD turn with just about 3 weeks before we were meant to launch our in-person book distributions in schools. We spent 6 weeks devising a totally new system, but it was ready to launch just as the mostly-shot school year was wrapping up.
We faced an uphill battle just trying to reach families and make sure they knew they could order free books. There, our partners moved heaven and earth as well, placing orders for students, tracking down families that moved, even pushing the opportunity in district-wide text messages or newsletters. Still, we reached about 2/3 of students in our partner schools. Not reaching that 1/3 hurt.
This time around, we’ll be able to train our media specialists and small support teams in each school in the ordering system so that they can provide backup and tutorials to teachers and their students. We’ll work to get orders placed over a longer period of time, giving our volunteers time to pack orders.
We plan to leverage the schools’ growing infrastructure for getting materials out to students, as a way of distributing the book bags that – last year – had to be hand-delivered by volunteers.
We’re reaching our partner schools in surrounding counties through an expanded partnership with First Book, a national partner that has access to the brand-new books and distribution networks to get higher-quality titles to our students at a shorter turnaround time than we faced last summer.
We’re bringing on a small team of interns to help with the technical, logistical, and customer support aspects of running an e-commerce website that gives away free books. (Seriously, y’all, we never got into this line of work to be responding to support tickets at 10:30 at night, but that’s where we were in 2020!)
And finally, we just learned a ton from doing this in spring and summer of 2020. We learned so much that we joked about how it would be a shame not to put our new-found skills to use again. While we’re sad that we’re still here – sheltering in place, learning remotely, holding all of our meetings via Zoom and Google hangouts. (We really, really miss working in the same space as a team, and going to community meetings with our partners!) Ten months later, we’re just glad we have the tools and the arcane knowledge needed to serve the kids and the community we love.
Because those kids and this community are so worth it. Their futures are intertwined, and they are worth investing in. Providing books to our students today is an investment in the future of this community, and we’re here for the long haul. We’re here for keeps.