Spreading the love of literacy

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Nicol Klingenstein and Michelle Cook provide books to underprivileged children through their Book Drive for Kids nonprofit organization. (Photo by Helen’s Photography)

Back in the early 1990s when it was just she and her husband, Michelle Cook made a habit of helping people by teaching rescue mission patrons in the Los Angeles area.

After moving to Flower Mound and with her homeschooled children growing older, she wanted to do something similar here. That’s when she learned the Dallas/Fort Worth area had more than 630,000 economically disadvantaged children, most with few if any books in their homes.

So she recruited friend Nicol Klingenstein and started Book Drive for Kids three years ago. They called friends asking for any used books they could donate and initially ended up with about 2,000. She used some teaching contacts to set up classroom libraries in the Dallas County schools where they thought there was the biggest need.

“Then we started holding free book fairs so the children could choose a book they could keep. These children don’t have many choices in their lives so this is really special,” Cook said. “We started with just books donated to us and no money.”

Once they realized most of their donations were coming from Flower Mound and the surrounding areas, they extended their reach closer to home. They started with Central Elementary and Lewisville Elementary, both located in Lewisville and serving a student body which is 80 percent or more economically disadvantaged, and more recently added schools in the Denton area.

After providing books to about 4,000 students in the first year, Cook estimates it will be more than 12,000 in 2019-2020.

“We started out as a heart for literacy,” she said. “We felt there was a real need and as we’ve progressed we’ve found there is a physical and tangible need but also emotional needs. We come in and tell the kids it’s a gift to them and we encourage them to share their books with their friends. That has made an impact on the students and teachers too.”

“It’s impacted me in a way I never imagined,” Klingenstein said. “I don’t know how to explain it but they say when you try to bless someone you are blessed. I walk out of there feeling I’ve done something. They smile and they’re excited and they can’t believe the book is theirs. Even after they break the seal and put their name in it they ask ‘who do we give this back to’ and so it takes a little time for them to realize it’s theirs.”

As the organization grew it was able to secure some monetary donations from individuals and area businesses. That allowed it to apply for a matching grant from the national literacy organization Reading is Fundamental for a book ownership program.

While Cook and Klingenstein hoped for $8,000, they ended up with $18,000 allowing them to purchase 6,000 new books. They raised $4,000 in 30 days in part through the help of area businesses like Regions Bank which has provided six of the 25 overall volunteers who help with the program.

“We’ve been surprised at the feedback with gently used and even some not-so-gently used books,” Cook said. “The kids were just eating them up. So we have just grown.”

Usually they arrange a day with school librarians to have tables in the library and have classes come to them for students to choose their own books. The books are displayed on four portable shelves built by Isaac Carpenter, a Flower Mound High School student who earned his Eagle Scout badge for the community service project. He also conducted a book donation drive resulting in 1,000 books.

“We know when children choose books they are something like 90 percent more likely to read it,” Cook said. “We tell the kids it’s like shopping at Half-Price Books. There’s a mixture between new and used. And you never know what you are going to get.”

Once the organization commits to a school it commits to returning the following year.

“Our goal is we want this to be a part of the rhythm of their school years, one of their traditions that they have in their school,” Cook said.

Book Drive for Kids had already held 14 book fairs before the COVID-19 virus pandemic and its limitations hit. Fortunately, Cook and Klingenstein had just joined the Flower Mound Chamber of Commerce to talk about ways to better tell their story to the community. They figure with people primarily sequestered in their homes, there should be more time to look for and find old books to donate.

Cook and Klingenstein still plan to hold a Share a Book event to celebrate World Book Day slated for April 23. The goal is for volunteers to pick up books at donators’ homes. And they hope to hold the three remaining book fairs in April and May.

To keep up with the status of all upcoming events including how to sign up as a Share a Book pick-up location, visit bookdriveforkids.com.

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