By George O'Brien
What began as an intriguing effort to help the beleagured, understocked library at the White Street School in Springfield has blossomed into a success story on a number of levels. It's called Link to Libraries, the brainchild of co-founders Susan Jaye-Kaplan and Janet Crimmins, which is devoted to not simply stocking library shelves in schools and nonprofits, but also promoting a love for books and a desire to learn.
Janet Crimmins says that new books touch nearly all the senses, especially for young people.
Sight is the most obvious, she noted, referring to both the cover and, of course, the words inside. But there's also hearing, at least when a book is read aloud; touch - "young people like to hold new books," she explained - and even, or especially, smell.
"New books have a wonderful smell to them, and we hear that over and over - kids love that smell," said Crimmins, one of the founders of a nonprofit group whose official mission it is to put new or gently used books in the hands of young people across Western Mass. The unofficial mission would be to stimulate all of those senses.
It accomplishes the latter by fulfilling the former.
And if there's a problem, it might be that this organization is doing that job almost too well. Indeed, a waiting list of groups seeking donations of books is so long - 80 or so at last count - that Crimmins and co-founder Susan Jaye-Kaplan both used the word 'daunting' to describe it.
But that waiting list aside - and all agree that it is a good problem to have - Link to Libraries has become an inspiring success story for the region, one that prompted a number of area businesses to step forward and assist a cause of significant importance to the region and its fortunes moving forward.
"Indeed, at a time when many municipalities and nonprofit groups are struggling with their budgets, libraries are often victims of circumstance," said Kaplan, noting that many facilities have dramatically cut back on new book purchases, or cut them out altogether.
"Link to Libraries was created essentially to help fill this huge void," she said, "but it is not just the fact that the organization is stacking shelves that makes this story so compelling. Rather, it's how, and with what."
"We want to give books that take a child to a place he or she has never been before or give them an experience they never had before," said Crimmins, a licensed speech and language therapist who provides communication intervention to young children. "So one book may be about going to the moon, and another may be about the Great Wall of China. We also want books that deal with children's emotions, like self-esteem or bullying, and the books may present a different way of dealing with that emotion, one the child had never thought of."
Said Kaplan, "this is certainly not the only organization out there that is donating books, but there are some things that set us apart. The main difference is that we focus on giving very specific kinds of books, and we focus very differently than other organizations on whom we donate to."
As for that 'how', the organization, working with all-volunteer help, is getting area businesses and people working for them actively involved in the process, through book drives, read-aloud participation, donations of warehouse space (Rediker Software in Wilbraham), and more.
"We're completely volunteer-driven, which is one of the best things about Link to Libraries, because more than 82 cents of every dollar donated is used to puchase new books," said Kaplan, noting that volunteers, ages 12 to adult, handle everything from packing books to developing and updating the Web site, located at www.linktolibraries.org.
For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the stated mission of Link to Libraries - "to collect and distribute new and gently used books to elementary schools and nonprofit organizations throughout Western Mass. and Northern Conn. and to enhance language and literacy skills of children of all cultural backgrounds to enable them to learn about their world through reading" - and how, by carrying it out, the organization is writing the book on changing young lives.
The Plot Thickens
A quick look at the list of facilities and nonprofits that have received books from Link to Libraries over just the past 16 months reveals the extensive reach of this organization.
There are dozens of schools, of course, in several area communities, including Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, Ludlow, Westfield, Easthampton, West Springfield, Pittsfield, and Greenfield. But there's also the Helen Berube Teen Parenting Center in Pittsfield, Square One centers in Holyoke and Springfield, the Haitian Relief Program, several area YMCAs, and the Hampden County Women's Correctional Facility, in conjunction with Square One (all chosen sites are in underserved locations where more than 85% of the children receiving books are on free or reduced lunch).
In all, more than 10,000 books (175 per site), with a value of more than $100,000, have been distributed, said Kaplan, noting that it all started with a donation of 65 books to the White Street Elementary School in Springfield. Actually, it started with Kaplan's response to a story in the local newspaper about the school and how it was in dire need of books.
She sent out an e-mail to all the members of a group she had formed called the Good Reads Book Club asking for donations of specific books, those recommended by Crimmins. She had 51 books soon after, and also had a sense that this initiative could easily be expanded well beyond her book club - and equally far beyond the White Street School.
She was right.
Working with Crimmins, a host of other volunteers, and area businesses that have become essentially partners-in-books, Kaplan, also founder of GoFIT, has matched her passion for physical fitness with a zeal to promote reading, learning, and love of books.
And those three elements explain why the organization is committed to doing much more than delivering boxes of books to libraries. As both co-founders emphasized, part of their mission is taking great care about what's in those boxes.
The underlying philosophies can be seen in some of the titles that are distributed regularly, from President Obama; A Day in the Life of America's Leader (put out by Time magazine) to Freedom Ship, a story (based on a true incident) about a boy and his family, all born slaves, working on a Confederate steamship during the Civil War; from We All Went on Safari; A Counting Journey Through Tanzania to Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl.
"The books we're looking for are those suitable for a long-term shelf life in a school library or a nonprofit organization that serves kids," said Crimmins. "We want to give books that are all curriculum-based, and we cover all genres, including biographies, poetry, multi-cultural books, and more.
"Some of the books we like most are fiction based on non-fiction," she explained. "So the kids can read books that are fictitious about a 9-year-old who was a slave in the South and made it out of slavery with his family. We want books that children can read, relate to, and make text-to-life connections."
Some recent initiatives undertaken by Link to Libraries and its volunteers help further explain how organization's mission is being carried out.
One is the Link to Libraries Read-Aloud Program for public elementary schools. Initiated last year, it is intended to incorporate newly acquired vocabulary into a student's lexicon, while also involving the readers in the community, specifically the education system of a specific community.
Elaborating, Crimmins said that based upon the grade level of the class, a theme book of fewer than 36 pages is chosen from the Link to Libraries stock, or inventory. The language-based book is chosen targeting at least six different vocabulary words students may not be familiar with.
There is considerable stimulation of the senses in these exercises, she explained, noting that students must look at the pictures as well as the reader, listen, and take part in an interactive discussion that follows the reading. And as part of the read-aloud experience, each child is given a book to take home, thus encouraging them to begin their own at-home libraries. Earlier this year, the Read-Aloud Program was extended to toddler day care programs in both Western Massachusetts and Northern Connecticut.
Meanwhile, over the past several weeks, Link to Libraries volunteers have become involved in the actual development of a school library, at the New Leadership Charter School in Springfield, which never had one before. It opened on May 5 to considerable fanfare.
"It's been quite a three weeks - it's been hectic, but a lot of fun," said Kaplan, referring to the days just before the opening. She noted that the endeavor, like all things involving Link to Libraries, has been undertaken with the help of dozens of volunteers and the contributions (which come in many forms) of area businesses, which, in this case, include MassMutual, Peter Pan, Northwestern Mutual, Bay Path College, Rediker, and others.
The Next Chapters
Looking far down the road - how far they're not sure - Kaplan and Crimmins said there may be a day when libraries won't have books; everything will be online or on tape.
For now, though, the need still exists, and it's probably greater than ever before, as evidenced by that waiting list of schools and nonprofits seeking donations. So Link to Libraries will go on soliciting book drives and other types of support, filling the warehouse, and then stacking library shelves.
Or, to put it another way, it will go on stimulating the senses, especially through that smell that the kids all love and hopefully won't ever forget.