Walking into the Books for Keeps warehouse, you are immediately surrounded by books and more books. Justin Bray, who recently took over as executive director in August, battles with troubling technology to get music started for his volunteers as they sort through the many piles of books laid across tables. There are shelves surrounding the walls and large cardboard boxes of books fill the rest of the large room. Off to the left, there is a huge heart made of thank you cards from the students impacted by Books for Keeps.
Books for Keeps has become one of Athens’ best-known nonprofits over the past 12 years. Bray, who took over when Leslie Hale stepped down this summer, is assuming the leadership reins at a time when the organization is launching new initiatives to grow the community in literacy and learning with new programs, partnerships and even a magic bus filled with books.
Bray originally began as a volunteer before moving to a full-time employee as a program director and then eventually applying and getting this executive job.
“It’s been really difficult,” Bray said about his new position. “It’s been challenging, but rewarding. And yeah, I’m excited. I know I’m in the right place.”
The organization was started in 2009 after founder Melany Smith met a second-grade student at Alps Road Elementary who was upset about school breaking for the summer. Once break began, then this student would not be able to use the library, their only access to books. Smith began donating books to the child’s school and expanded from there to other schools across Athens-Clarke County, creating Books for Keeps.
A few years later Smith handed the torch down to Hale, Books for Keep’s first-ever executive director, who has now handed it down to Bray.
“Yeah, with Justin, what he brings to the table is he is so good as a front-of-the-house person,” Smith said. “He’s so good at helping other people understand that their contribution is making a difference.”
Books for Keeps’ biggest goals are not only just to provide children with books who may not have access otherwise, but also to curb summer slide.
“Summer slide” is the tendency for students, especially those from low-income families, to lose some of the achievement gains they made during the previous school year. According to Think Stretch, low-income students lose more than two months in reading achievement over the summer, which is more than other income groups. And with a poverty rate of 25.7%, Athens-Clarke County students are particularly vulnerable.
“A lot of these children don’t own anything,” Smith said. “And so the joy of ownership and feeling the same as everybody else on that day, not, ‘I’m going to have to sit this one out because I don’t have any money.’ Like everybody’s the same.”
Children at these elementary schools are at serious risk of summer slide due to not being able to read at home and stay academically involved. They cannot afford to have the books and materials to do this. And that is where Books for Keeps comes in, helping 21 elementary schools in the ACC district.
“The way that it’s started is that we want to create opportunities for kids to become lifelong readers,” Bray said. “I can’t expect everyone to become readers, but we want to make sure that we open doors for learning and literacy.”
They have recently assumed administration of the Clarke County portion of the Dolly Parton Imaginations Library in October. This specifically helps children from birth to age five and their families. DPIL is a book gifting program that mails free, high-quality books to a child every month until they’re five, regardless of their possible disadvantages with accessing books.
Our previous strategic plan, what we wanted to do was continue to provide book access,” Bray says. “But then once that book access is at a point that we find satisfactory, then we begin leveraging those books with programming.”
On top of Dolly Parton Imaginations, they have also hired Christine Mallozzi, a family literacy coordinator this year. She helps to build curriculums to engage families and literacy adjacent activities, identifying ways in which those activities in the home or on the community can grow literacy and learning.
Bray hopes to push his triumphs with access and literacy to even greater lengths with the creation of a bookmobile. With a bus purchased and sprucing up in the works, it will soon turn into a library on wheels.
“I’m really excited about the new ideas that Justin’s bringing,” says Books for Keeps board member and Fowler Drive Elementary School principal Pamela Garcia. “He’s super excited about the bookmobile…and Justin has a lot of ideas. I’m just excited to have some fresh new ideas and see how he can help the community. ”
However, Bray and others with Books for Keeps say that the most important thing is making literacy and learning a commonality in the Athens community.
“If you were ready to read and could not have access to the book you wanted to read, what would you do?” Smith said. “That’s why access is so important for the book to be with the child when the child wants to read for it to be a book the child actually wants to read.”
Erin Wasserman is a journalism major at the University of Georgia.
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