In low-income neighborhoods, one book for every 300 children? In middle-socioeconomic status neighborhoods, 13 or more books for every child? I read this jarring statistic and had an epiphany. As a university professor, mother of a school-aged child, and part-time itinerant public school speech-language pathologist, I wondered if there was a way I could help effect change for the low-SES children in my own area?
SLPs all over the United States battle with the problem of students who present with cognitive, linguistic, and executive functioning deficits related to being from low-SES backgrounds. Sometimes these students have genuine, underlying language impairments and qualify for language interventions, but many times they are typically-developing language learners whose language deficits stem from their low-SES status and its accompanying disadvantages. As experienced SLPs, we all know that low literacy skills can have lasting and serious consequences. A shocking statistic indicates that in states such as California and West Virginia, prison cells are built based in part upon the number of third grade students who are reading below grade level. What could I do to help?
I decided to attack the problem of a lack of books for children in low-income homes. I started collecting new and gently-used children’s books in fall of 2008 for a graduate student’s thesis. We collected several hundred books, which she used, and then she graduated from our program. In April of 2009, my beloved mother, Beverly Roseberry, died of a heart attack. Mom had been a general education and Sunday school teacher. In the Philippines, where I grew up (my parents were missionaries), my mom always had books for my sisters and me despite the fact that we were quite poor. On one island we lived on, my mom even started a library for the Filipino children. She loved books, and made sure that my sisters and I did, too! I decided to keep the children’s book collection going in my mom’s memory. Today we have collected and donated more than 43,000 books to local children in under-resourced areas. There are 21 area agencies and organizations receiving our books as well as three elementary schools.
Third grade students at Whitney Elementary School receive books to keep and read during the summer.
It can be discouraging for SLPs who work with at-risk, low-SES children to address the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that these children face. One of these obstacles is the lack of access to age-appropriate reading materials. How can the average SLP gather children’s books to distribute to low-SES children to keep as their own? Here are some tips for being successful:
- Have a large, attractive, marked box in a central location that is easy for people to get to
- Make the collection time-limited (e.g., 1-2 months)
- Have a short flier explaining why books are being collected and who they will be shared with. On the flier, have a contact person with contact information (like an email).
- If possible, donate the books locally to groups of children that your audience of donors cares about. For example, the books collected by the Orangevale Rotary go to the Orangevale Food Bank. Books collected by moms in Davis go to Head Starts in Davis. People are most enthusiastic if books stay local and connected to them somehow.
- Be sure to pick up the books on a regular basis. Don’t let that box overflow and make a mess!
- Challenge your group to collect a certain number (e.g., 100-500 books). People love a numerical goal.
- Keep reminding people—announcing the book drive one time will not be sufficient.
- At the end of the book drive, celebrate with a treat! Share information about where the books went. If possible, share pictures of children who have received the books.
I have had several undergraduate students in our program gather between 300-800 books just by asking their friends. Members of service organizations such as the Rotary often like to take on a project such as a book drive. Churches are another great source. My own church, Bayside, has donated more than 5,000 beautiful books!
Most of all, remember: people love to donate books for a good cause. I have found that many, many people have children’s books sitting around in their homes gathering dust; however, the people are so sentimentally attached to the books that they cannot just give them to a faceless organization. Having a person specifically attached to the book drive—a face to identify with—helps people become more willing to part with books that hold precious memories. If you are the “face” of your book drive, most people will be very generous in their donations.
A book drive has several major advantages: 1) low-income children benefit greatly from having their own books, and their literacy skills improve; 2) your friends get to clean out those closets, and 3) you get the joy of seeing children own their own books—for many, these are the very first books they have ever owned. Collecting and donating children’s books is something I will do for the rest of my life, and I have been privileged to have tremendous support from my students, church, family, and friends. Good luck!
Celeste Roseberry-McKibbin, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, is a professor in Sacramento State University’s Department of Speech Pathology and Audiology and also works directly with students ages 3-18 as a speech-language pathologist in the San Juan Unified School District and has writes a blog about her book drive. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.