As a child growing up in Macon, Melaney Smith loved to read. She and her friends even created their own book clubs, where they would read the same books at the same time and talk about the characters like they were real people. Her favorite was “Little House on the Prairie.” Now director of prospect management and analytics at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business, she remains an avid reader.
One day in 2009, Smith’s niece told her about children at Alps Road Elementary School in Athens who were not looking forward to their summer vacation because they loved to read and had no books at home.
“That just sounded like torture to me,” recalled Smith, 53, who moved to Athens in 2007 with her husband of 26 years, Bayne Smith.
So Smith started Books for Keeps, an Athens-based nonprofit organization that distributes books to children from low-income families.
Using her personal blog and Facebook page to get the message out, she began to receive books in the mail from donors across the country.
One of those first donors was Kay Hardtmann of Greenville, S.C., who recalls driving 100 miles to Athens with “an SUV loaded down with books” to meet Smith for the first time.
“For a lot of people, the tendency is to figure out a place to help out,” said Hardtmann. “(Smith) chose to create something to fix this need.”
Despite the support, Smith found it difficult to keep her project going. She realized Books for Keeps could not exist solely on donations of books. She had to raise money for operations and secure 501(c)3 status from the Internal Revenue Service so donors’ contributions were tax deductible. She had underestimated the sheer amount of work and financial support needed to keep a nonprofit afloat. Smith was very close to shutting down the program when, in 2011, she learned about a federally funded study led by scholar Richard L. Allington. According to the study, students allowed to select 12 books to keep for summer reading saw their reading skills improve, and the effects of summer slide, the academic decline often experienced during the break between school years, were ameliorated.
The study reinvigorated Smith’s mission, and she reached out to Jennifer Graff, an associate professor in the Language and Literacy Education department at UGA, who worked on the study with Allington. Graff thought they were meeting merely to talk about the study. Instead, Smith explained her goal to provide local children with 12 books apiece for summer reading. Graff was dubious.
“I thought there was no way she could pull this off,” said Graff. “I was worried Smith’s plans were too ambitious.”
Graff was proved wrong.
“Her passion and drive have allowed this program to change a community for the better,” said Graff.
Having Graff’s support and expertise behind the organization helped provide the momentum Smith needed to power through the challenges.
“That moment was the turning point for Books for Keeps,” Smith said. “I went from, ‘How do I get rid of these books?’ and ‘I have to go back to work,’ to thinking, ‘I guess I have to spend more time doing this now,’” she said, chuckling at the recollection.
Today Books for Keeps has three full-time employees and has distributed 450,000 books. It serves 18 schools, including 12 Athens-Clarke County elementary schools, Benteen and Dunbar elementary schools in Atlanta, as well as schools in Elberton and Warrenton. In 2015, Smith was named one of “10 Women of Worth” by L’Oreal Paris, an honor bestowed on women who have made a positive impact on their communities.
And Smith is back to being a volunteer with the organization. In 2013, Executive Director Leslie Hale was hired as the first full-time employee.
“I cried for a year,” said Smith about relinquishing control. “I basically handed my baby over to another person. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but it was 100 percent the right decision. When I stepped down, Books for Keeps was in five schools. In the first year under Leslie, we expanded to serving 10 schools. That’s what happens when you put the right person in the right job.”
Now, said Smith, “I do whatever Leslie tells me to do.”
Throughout the year, volunteers work in a warehouse, collecting and sorting books by age and genre until the big day in May when they visit the schools to distribute the books.
“The day that Books for Keeps is in our school is one of the most exciting days of the year,” said Deirdre Sugiuchi, media specialist at Oglethorpe Elementary in Athens. “I love watching the kids choose their books and discuss them after reading. Books for Keeps teaches them how important reading is.
“Smith is a hero,” she said.
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