Today, SoCal. Tomorrow, the World.
How Bookends and local students are providing children with the gift of books.
Written bySusan Salter Reynolds
Robin Keefe, the founder of Bookends, a southern California-based non-profit that recycles children’s books and takes them to inner-city schools, homeless shelters, children’s group homes and juvenile detention centers, doesn’t mince words: “All children need to be surrounded by books. A child has a right to books. There are plenty of books to go around.”
You’d think she was talking about food, air, water. And yet, there are many parts of Los Angeles, Keefe reports, in which books are considered a luxury. While the national average ratio of books to kids is 22 to 1, in many of Bowokend’s recipient organizations the ratio is just 3 to 1. “Our goal,” says Keefe, “is 5 to 1.”
Keefe, who lives in Calabasas, had a successful career in real estate but later discovered her true passion with Hollygrove, an orphanage in Hollywood. One day in 1993, her 8-year-old son Brandon was home sick from school. Keefe, then the chair of Hollygrove’s board, had a meeting she couldn’t miss. On the agenda: the need for a library. They had the empty room but lacked the funds for books. Brandon overheard the discussion.
The next day at school, when his third-grade teacher explained the importance of community service and asked if any of the children had ideas for ways to help, Brandon raised his hand. “My mom’s orphanage needs books. They need to be in good condition, because these kids deserve it.” Brandon was adamant on that point. In less than a week, kids at Brandon’s school brought in 7,000 books.
Soon the Junior League offered to decorate the library, local librarians helped catalog and organize books and volunteers offered vans and book carts. The word got out. Print stories ran in the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor and local papers in the San Fernando Valley. An office was opened in West Hills (it recently moved to the Westside), and there was no turning back.
Today there are more than 700 organizations that have received 2.2 million books, courtesy of the 250,000 Bookends volunteers and four full-time staff members. The 23 board members range from ages 13 to 66. Around half of Bookends’ $1.7 million operating budget comes from foundations, the other from private donations. The list of corporate sponsors includes Amazon, Albertsons, American Express, Verizon and dozens of others. Keefe is a powerhouse.
Bookends is student-driven. Kids in donor schools organize more than 50 book drives a year, identify recipient organizations, sort books and bring the books to the schools, libraries, group homes, shelters and other organizations in need.
“Recipient organizations have to demonstrate a commitment to literacy development for kids,” says Keefe. “The last thing we want is for books to be a burden. We are only as good as the teachers and community leaders we deal with. With so many schools shutting down their libraries for lack of funds, we often choose to work directly with teachers and principals to flood the classrooms with books. Kids want the books to be in good condition so that they feel like gifts. The recipient school must host the delivery. The pride on both sides levels the playing field.”
Keefe dreams of finding a sponsor like Westfield (shopping centers) that would provide locations for drives. She dreams of getting computers and e-books into classrooms. And yes, she dreams of starting new Bookends (beyond the six counties that already participate) around the world. Brandon, now 23, has taken books to orphanages in Vietnam and bomb shelters in Israel.
“This isn’t just a charity,” says Keefe. “It’s a movement.”
Valley Giving 2010-2011
Carpenter Community Charter, North Hollywood
Books Moved: 4,308
Curtis School, 405/Mulholland
Books Moved: 3,563
Laurence Elementary, Valley Glen
Books Moved: 4,166
Millikan Elementary, Sherman Oaks
Books Moved: 636
Oakwood Elementary, North Hollywood
Books Moved: 3,358
Sierra Canyon Elementary, Chatsworth
Books Moved: 3,484
The Neighborhood School Pre-School, Valley Village
Books Moved: 809
Walter Reed Middle School, North Hollywood
Books Moved: 1,714
Wesley Elementary, North Hollywood
Books Moved: 1,435
With Bookends, students behind the drive must deliver the books.