By Jennifer Proe
Three years ago, the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank was an idea waiting to happen. At that time, the organization’s co-founders,
Shaker residents Judy Immerman Payne and Judi Kovach, had just met as volunteers installing Little Free Libraries throughout low-income neighborhoods in Cleveland.
“In 2014, the City of Cleveland was a book desert,” says Payne. The movement to install small wooden kiosks filled with free books was just taking off, and Payne and Kovach eagerly teamed up with a small group of volunteers to bring LFLs to Cleveland neighborhoods.
By the fall of 2015, Payne and Kovach had installed 30 LFLs in low-income areas of Cleveland and were supporting a total of 60. The only problem? Keeping them stocked.
“We needed an endless supply of books,” says Kovach, a Fernway resident who is retired from Progressive Insurance. “We had this idea of developing a central repository for collecting them.”
“We thought of it as a food bank, but with food for the brain,” says Payne, a Sussex resident with a background in nonprofit management and fundraising.
“You hear stories of children receiving books of their own, sometimes for the first time ever, and you can’t help but feel proud to support this life-changing organization.”
Payne and Kovach knew that early childhood literacy is critical to helping break the poverty cycle, yet most low-income families do not own a single book. They were determined to get books into the hands of as many children and their parents as possible.
As luck would have it, they connected with an online bookseller in Toledo who was happy to donate a large quantity of children’s books in good condition that were headed for the shredder.
When they told the bookseller they’d come collect them with an SUV, he told them, “Send a truck. We have 40,000.” Kovach and Payne quickly sorted out warehouse space, rounded up funding from family and friends, and in February of 2016 the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank was born.
The books go far beyond the Little Free Libraries. The Book Bank has now distributed more than 1.7 million books to children in need throughout Greater Cleveland, working with hundreds of agencies. In recognition of its work, the Book Bank received the 2016 Center for Community Solutions Anisfield-Wolf Memorial Award, along with a host of other awards.
Each month, hundreds of volunteers of all ages and backgrounds come to the Book Bank at 3635 Perkins Avenue to sort books for two hours at a time – including book groups, church groups, young professionals, teens, college students, and retirees.
While volunteers hail from all over Cleveland, it’s not surprising that many of their regular volunteers come from Shaker Heights, a community known for its commitment to education and service.
One of those regulars, Fernway resident Jean Albrecht, enjoys the trip down memory lane as she comes across books she loved reading to her own children, as well as the social aspect of chatting with the other volunteers. She also finds it incredibly rewarding.
“You hear stories of children receiving books of their own, sometimes for the first time ever, and you can’t help but feel proud to support this life-changing organization,” she says.
And when Fernway Elementary School was devastated by a fire last summer, the two co-founders of the Book Bank were gratified to be able to help out in their own backyard.
“Our classroom libraries were totally destroyed and had to be rebuilt prior to the start of school,” says Fernway principal Chris Hayward. “The Book Bank stepped in and provided our teachers with an amazing collection of books, which allowed our students to hit the ground running on day one.”
Says Kovach, “We were able to create the Book Bank because our community came together to make it happen.” Payne adds, “There is a role for everyone who wants to help.”