Giving Underserved Kids a Fighting Chance -- Simply by Giving Them Something to Read

They weren't a nameless, faceless demographic group. They were individual children with unique needs and disparate interests, who faced wide-ranging challenges. I asked for help. People said YES. And Books for Keeps was born.
12/03/2015 11:20 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2016

I know the exact moment my life changed. It started with a temper tantrum.

My niece MK was a University of Georgia student, and had come to my house for the free laundry facilities. She'd just come from mentoring a second-grader at a local elementary school, and overheard two students lamenting that soon they wouldn't be able to read, because school was letting out for the summer.

Wait... "Wouldn't be able to read?" I spat back.

Turns out these children had no books at home. Not a single one.

"But what about the public library?" I asked. For these children, it was not an option, for reasons that ranged from lack of parental involvement to transportation limitations. The school library was their only source of books. They truly were facing a summer without a single book to read.

That's when it happened -- the moment my life changed. I stomped my foot, threw up my hands, looked at MK and said, "How hard can it be to give books to kids? Why doesn't somebody DO SOMETHING about this?" The hair on my arms stood up as I answered my own question: "I am somebody. I can do something about this."

I called the teacher and asked if I could send over some books for these two students. What I learned broke my heart, and it almost caused me to give up.

"Summer slide" is a learning achievement loss that affects children who fail to read during the summer break. It has been documented and studied for decades. Children who don't read can fall two to four months behind their classmates who do, and the impact is cumulative.

By sixth grade, these children can trail up to four years behind their peers. It affects children from low-income families at a disproportionate rate -- and the impact is cumulative. A 2001 study actually counted books in the homes of children in high-poverty neighborhoods. The tally? One book per 300 children.

What could I possibly do about this huge, complex problem affecting so many disadvantaged children, across generations? Nothing. But what I could do was try to help the children right in front of me.

They weren't a nameless, faceless demographic group. They were individual children with unique needs and disparate interests, who faced wide-ranging challenges.

I asked for help. People said YES. And Books for Keeps was born.

While I was grappling with how to help those first two children, reading researcher Dr. Richard Allington was pioneering a solution to summer slide: His study found that after three years of giving underprivileged children twelve books each at the end of the school year, the impact on reading achievement was on par with attending summer school.

Dr. Jennifer Graff, one of the study's co-authors, helped us understand the key factors contributing to success. Of primary importance: book selection. Turns out, if we want children to read, we have to give them books they actually want to read.

Now the Books for Keeps program is a structured, research-based approach to mitigating summer slide in elementary school children. We set up free book fairs in school media centers, and allow children to self-select twelve high-interest books -- books they actually want to read -- at the end of the school year.

We ask them what books they want, what they're interested in, who their idols are, what sports they like -- and we find a way to purchase books that will meet those interests. Even the kids who walk in saying, "I hate to read," leave excited, their shoulders straining under the weight of twelve books in a bright, new tote bag.

This video explains how it all works, but it's pretty simple on the surface. Ask children what they like, and make it available to them. (OK it's not really simple at all; it's hard work! But there's a word limit on this post. Just watch the video.)

The L'Oreal Women of Worth program is helping me tell the world about the joy that is Books for Keeps. Joy on the faces of children choosing the first books they've ever owned. Joy - and tears - in the eyes of volunteers as they meet these children and help them, one at a time, face to face. Joy in the hearts of teachers, as the school year ends, knowing their students will be reading all summer long. Joy that sustains everyone at Books for Keeps for the remaining eleven months of the year.

But that's not all. Books for Keeps is using L'Oreal's grant funds to kick off a much-anticipated expansion: from 10 schools serving 4,000 children to 25 schools serving 10,000 children all over Georgia. How fast we can do it depends on how many more individuals say "yes," and recognize the same thing I did: "I am somebody. I can do something."

By day, Melaney Smith is an information security analyst for Symantec. When she learned about a group of children in her hometown of Athens, Georgia who had no books to read during the summer, she became a crusader working to level the playing field for children from low-income families. Her organization, Books for Keeps, provides books to children from low-income families, in sufficient quantities to keep them reading all summer long. Melaney was recognized as a L'Oréal Paris Woman of Worth in 2015 for making an extraordinary difference in her community.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and L'Oréal Paris to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Women of Worth program, honoring women making a beautiful difference in the world. The ten 2015 Women of Worth honorees are pursuing their passions to accomplish the extraordinary through philanthropic efforts in their communities. Each received $10,000 for her charitable cause from L'Oréal Paris. To learn more about Women of Worth or to submit a nomination beginning Spring 2016, please visit womenofworth.com.