Books Program Exposes Kids to the Joy of Literacy

Jennifer Kenealy (left) and Christopher Phillips unpack and review donated books at Jefferson-Houston Elementary School.

Jennifer Kenealy (left) and Christopher Phillips unpack donated books at Jefferson-Houston Elementary School in Alexandria, Va.

Some people take a fitness class before heading to work. Others jog a mile or two. Jennifer Kenealy, 45, gets her morning workout by hauling boxes of children’s books to schools, recreation centers, youth-focused nonprofit organizations and other sites. These are spots where children of low-income families congregate as part of Alexandria Book Shelf (ABS), a citywide literacy program run by the uber-creative DreamDog Foundation.

It is 8 a.m. on a humid, 90-plus-degree morning as Kenealy and I meet in the parking lot of Jefferson-Houston Elementary School, for pre-K to eighth-grade students in Alexandria, Va. The back of her SUV is crammed with hundreds of books packed into cardboard boxes. I have an hour to help her carry them into the library before I begin work at 9. We are already starting to sweat.

ABS wants every child to have access to books, especially children from low-income families. “These are all kid-proven books,” says Kenealy, a part-time elementary school teacher, as school Principal Christopher Phillips brings us a hand truck. “This is a chance to make sure every child has books to read that inspire their literacy. It has to be a book they like and it has to motivate them.”

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Kenealy loads up the hand truck with four boxes and wheels it toward the school entrance. I sling two canvas bags crammed with books over each shoulder, wishing I’d opted to push the dolly, and follow. Once inside, we take the elevator to the second-floor library and begin unpacking.

The idea is simple. Kids can take home and keep a book from any of the 35 ABS locations, building a personal library. A book can be returned to an ABS location at any time. Kenealy used to worry that the sites would be depleted, but in the three years since the program launched, all the bookshelves have remained fully stocked, thanks to a continuous flow of book donations in Alexandria, as well as in 10 elementary schools in neighboring Arlington, Va., and several locations in the District of Columbia.

Kenealy cites a 2010 University of Nevada, Reno, study stating that books in a home is a top indicator of a child’s success in school. “Why would we expect a child who has five books to do as well as a child who has been surrounded by 500 books?” she asks. ABS, she believes, will help close that literacy gap.

It is 8:45 a.m. and time for me to go, leaving Kenealy and Phillips to unpack and sort boxes of books — books that could potentially open doors, imaginations and possibilities for hundreds of children.

It was the perfect workout.

Photo: Jane Hess Collins

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