(By Lauren LeBel, The Reminder) SPRINGFIELD — Fifteen years, 70 schools, 1 million book donations.
Link to Libraries donated its millionth book during a gala event on May 4 at the Basketball Hall of Fame. Link to Libraries President and CEO Laurie Flynn called it a “full circle” moment as the book was donated to Springfield’s Warner School — the same school that was the first recipient of books when the nonprofit organization was founded in 2008 by Susan Jaye-Kaplan and Janet Crimmins.
Link to Libraries was formed as a way to get books to underserved youth across Western Massachusetts.
“Without books children can’t become efficient readers,” said Flynn.
Its mission is to help children increase literacy levels.
Link to Libraries has two “significant programs,” Flynn shared. The first is a volunteer read aloud program. Once a month, volunteers visit schools to read and have conversations about the book with its students. The volunteers also bring brand new books for the children to keep and create an “at-home library” with. By the end of the school year, each child has about eight books in their collection.
“The readers enjoy it as much as the [students],” said Flynn.
The other program is called Community Book Link. This is when a local business or family adopts a school in need and supplies that library with 200 to 300 books each year.
Link to Libraries has approximately 70 sponsored schools, including all the Springfield elementary schools as they are qualified. Additional locations include Chicopee, West Springfield, Westfield, along with northern Connecticut. To be a sponsored school, Flynn said they must have a demonstrated need for this program.
All books that are donated to the schools through Link for Libraries are new. “This is because these children — so much of what they have are hand-me-downs,” said Flynn. “[This is the] one thing that is just theirs.”
The donated books are diverse in topics and culture, while also reflecting children in the classroom and what they want to take home and read, Flynn shared.
Currently, Link to Libraries has about 175 volunteer readers.
During the COVID-19 state of emergency the read aloud program was interrupted, but since its return, it has seen a high number of participants. Flynn said this is a “testament” to the program and the people wanting to be involved.
She went on to say that COVID-19 also had a “devastating impact on literacy levels across the state.” Flynn noted that 2022 MCAS scores showed that 71% of third graders in the districts Link to Libraries serves were not reading at grade level. Third grade is used as a bar because this is the year students go from learning to read to reading to learn, she shared.
Now, Flynn said, the demand in books and the program is “greater than ever.”
The gala on May 4 was the first in-person event that Link to Libraries hosted since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. This event is also the biggest fundraiser the organization puts on and takes place every two years.
At the last gala, $75,000 was raised. When she spoke with Reminder Publishing — before the gala took place — Flynn said they were on track to receive even more this year.
Link to Libraries hosts other smaller events throughout the year, but not typically in a gala year.
Flynn said, “We do our best to raise money year-round.”
She continued, “We are so grateful to our donors. They are what keep us going.”
To donate, visit linktolibraries.org.
Since Flynn joined the board in 2017, much has changed. “Grow is the key word,” she said.
“[We] have grown dramatically in terms of the number of schools to service,” Flynn added.
She noted that they have also grown geographically, to include a part of Connecticut and the Berkshires.
For Flynn, she shared that her favorite part has been reading to the students and “making that personal connection.”
She recalled a time she read to a little girl who was not interested in taking a free book home. However, after reading a book about baseball, the little girl lit up and said her grandfather had been wanting to take her to a game. From then on, Flynn only read her books about baseball. “You never know what books will light that fire,” she said.
Another gratifying part of the job is when Flynn receives positive feedback from the students. “The best part of my day is when we receive notes from kids thanking us,” she said.
Flynn also receives positive feedback from the volunteers, accompanied by photos to show the enjoyment everyone has during the process.
“We are a lean, mean organization,” said Flynn. After hiring someone full-time and reflecting on that growth, she noted that they are volunteer driven.
While donations are important, Flynn said, “We also love new sponsors for schools and volunteer readers.”
Moving forward, Flynn said, “We hope to expand even more and meet the need wherever that need is.”
In addition to the schools, Link to Libraries works to donate books to other nonprofit organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club.
During the COVID-19 restrictions, Link to Libraries had a partnership with the local food bank and was emphasizing the importance of “healthy bodies, healthy minds,” Flynn said.
Link to Libraries also has a “Reading Any Place” program, which provides homeless kids with books through shelters, schools and other organizations.
“The nice thing about us is we get involved with the little people we are helping,” Flynn said.