UGA 40 under 40 winner pivots Athens-based nonprofit to get books in the hands of children in the time of COVID-19

By Melody Herrington

For some kids, summer break is filled with fun in the sun, sleepaway camp, and plenty of time to leisurely peruse a well-stocked bookshelf for stories of adventure and intrigue. But for others, especially those from low-income families, summer can be quite the opposite. From an educational perspective, lack of access to books and scholastic materials over the summer has the potential to create an achievement gap for the next school year. One nonprofit organization in Athens is working to ensure students enter summer vacation with the books they need to close this gap and keep students on track.

“Summer slide” refers to the tendency for students to lose some of the educational gains made over the school year. School closures, necessitated by the COVID-19 response, extended the period that many students spent out of school in 2020, and, according to projections made in one report[1], will cut educational gains even further, by 30-50%.

SPIA alumna Leslie Hale (MPA ‘13) is the executive director of Books for Keeps (BFK), an organization founded to address summer slide.

“A single summer’s loss of knowledge can have ripple effects across a student’s life,” said Hale. “The odds are stacked against them. This organization has always been set up to serve those students.”

BFK works to improve reading achievement by providing new, personally selected books to children whose reading opportunities outside of school might be otherwise limited. With BFK’s support, every child enrolled in an Athens-Clarke County elementary school chooses and receives 12 books to add to their personal libraries.

Hale’s path to nonprofit management took an untraditional route. She studied journalism at the University of North Carolina, and worked for years as a news reporter in Naples, Florida. Her beat included education and state and local government, which sparked an interest in nonprofits and public policy. When the 2008 Great Recession hit, her job survived, but the uncertainty led her to consider new fields. “I felt that everything I was doing in journalism was helping to crystallize my interests in public policy and the downstream impacts of the political process,” she reflected.

The top-ranked MPA program at UGA held appeal, and when Hale applied, the program director recruited her personally. “I knew that the MPA degree was right for me, [since] it would . . . be general and broad enough to give me a basis in working in possibly state government, possibly public policy, or even nonprofits.”

Dynamic SPIA faculty made the curriculum exciting and relevant. “With all of the breadth of that knowledge, I also got incredibly specific skills and a research background,” she shared. Internships at Extra Special People and the Georgia Council on Developmental Disabilities led to relationships with community leaders and influential SPIA alumni, including then-GCDD deputy director Dr. Patricia Nobbie.

When Hale graduated in 2013, Books for Keeps hired her immediately, as its director and first employee, and she has remained there for seven years. She credits her time at SPIA with much of her professional preparation. Her human resources course formed a toolkit for supervision and employee evaluations. Nonprofit classes built grant writing and fundraising skills, and methods and policy courses taught Hale to base programming decisions on research-informed best practices. Mostly, Hale said, the MPA trained her to problem-solve, and to remain administratively flexible in the face of disruptions.

This training paid off. In early March, BFK staff had already scheduled its annual book distributions at 15 county elementary schools. Tens of thousands of new books sat ready to go in the BFK warehouse. Then COVID-19 hit and area schools closed, with no plans to reopen. Hale and her team began brainstorming contingency plans. Plan A was to deliver the books to the schools and hope for reopening, but would they reach kids in time for summer? They could pack bags for kids and work with school partners to deliver them, but that option violated their guiding principle: the importance of student choice. “Research says that you have to give students a choice of books, that they feel excited about reading and that they are comfortable reading,” said Hale. Delivering the wrong books would be as big a failure as delivering no books at all.

With the clock ticking on the school year, the team landed on a new plan. They would transition to online book-ordering, which maintained the golden rule of choice, but introduced numerous logistical challenges. The team partnered with Athens tech company RoundSphere, which used book inventory lists to design and customize an online shopping experience. Staff and interns worked overtime to quickly transform the Books for Keeps warehouse into a fulfillment/distribution center, using ISBNs to categorize and arrange titles for optimal order packing. They developed online tutorials for parents, and partnered with schools to make sure that every parent received a link and detailed instructions.

Implementation of the e-commerce model required volunteers, but the threat of coronavirus dictated a new volunteer plan. Hale looked to CDC guidelines and the best practices of other local nonprofits to design a unique, socially-distanced volunteer experience. Rotating teams include no more than eight people at once, all drawn from their existing volunteer base. Each volunteer is screened for symptoms, masked, and gloved. Workstations are defined across the spacious warehouse, and no work materials are shared. They developed special mandatory training sessions for volunteers to explain these rules, which are also posted throughout the facility.

These volunteers have been busy. Of 6,000 K-5 students in Clarke County alone, 3,380 had placed orders at the time of writing, 2,520 orders had been packed, and 2,100 of those had been delivered. Volunteers shuttle carts around the cavernous facility, packing each book order into a bright green BFK bag. With students’ home addresses in hand, others load up their personal cars with orders, and lots of hand sanitizer, circling the county to offer safe, no-contact delivery right to families’ doorsteps.

Books for Keeps will be taking orders throughout the summer, and actively contacting families who have not yet responded. Hale is currently planning outreach to coordinators at Section 8 housing locations, to walk parents through the ordering process.

The BFK team must soon decide whether to cancel their fall book sale, which typically takes place in August and accounts for revenue upwards of $25,000. If so, they must decide what to do with 30,000 used books already collected, and are leaning towards opening their warehouse to small groups of customers at a time, allowing them to shop for free or in return for a token donation.

“The libraries have been closed, unemployment is high, and books are sometimes the first thing to be cut from a family’s budget,” remarked Hale. “But [we believe] that books are absolutely essential. What better escape is there, from everything going on their lives, than the ability to get lost in a book?”

To make up the revenue from the book sale, Hale and her team identified a specific short-term fundraising goal and shared it with local supporters, including the Athens Chamber of Commerce, which made donations or helped direct the organization to grants. The ask is a simple one, Hale said. “All it takes is $30 to keep a child on track with their reading skills and help them maintain a love of reading, now, during the longest summer of their lives.”

SPIA has nurtured a strong connection with Books for Keeps since its inception. Previous and current faculty have served on its board and remain donors and volunteers. The annual MPA Orientation includes a service project, which sends 10-15 volunteers to help sort books, and the school hosts book drives throughout the year. BFK regularly sponsors SPIA interns (albeit, remotely in 2020), including Emily Stone (MPA ‘20), who, among other roles, assisted with the transition by assigning ISBNs to book titles to include on the e-commerce platform. Said Stone, “My time at Books for Keeps really taught me what it means to make decisions in an intentional, mission-centric nonprofit environment. I was also able to develop two of my passions, grant writing and marketing, and I am excited to apply these skills to a nonprofit as thoughtful as BFK in the future.”

In the face of unprecedented obstacles, Hale and her team are already thinking past COVID-19. Summer strategic planning will include a needs assessment survey and/or focus groups with educators, to determine how best to complement book giveaways with ongoing support for student literacy. And while their online ordering and fulfillment process is practical and efficient, Hale is eager to get back to greeting students in school media centers.

“We hope that we never have to use this system again,” she said, “so that we can be back in the schools in person next year.”

[1] Kuhfeld, M. & Tarasawa, B. (2020). The COVID-19 slide: What summer learning loss can tell us about the potential impact of school closures on student academic achievement. NWEA.