Church gives away books to delight of young students

Volunteer Linda Hunt searches for the appropriate bag of summer reading books to hand out to an elementary school student as they drive through the First Baptist Church of Lawrenceville parking lot. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Volunteer Linda Hunt searches for the appropriate bag of summer reading books to hand out to an elementary school student as they drive through the First Baptist Church of Lawrenceville parking lot. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

A good book can still make a child smile, even now, when reading is measured more by clicks than the rustle of paper.

Over the past three years, First Book Club 165, a nonprofit ministry of Lawrenceville First Baptist Church, has given away more than 150,000 books to more than 10,000 children in neighboring elementary schools serving low-income families.

So many smiles.

Club volunteer Lisa Speers is a teacher at Lawrenceville Elementary, one of the first schools to be gifted with books. Speers said she loves seeing students’ faces light up as they file into the cafeteria each spring for the pop-up book fair.

Each child can select a dozen books, and some will pick one for a sibling or parent, too.

“Oh my gosh, the joy on the kids’ faces,” Speers said, recalling the first book giveaway. “These gifts they were receiving were something beyond what they could have imagined.”

Using a grant from Better World Books, the church receives about 100,000 books every year — more than enough to supply students and teachers in four or five elementary schools.

These schools have a large population of students from disadvantaged homes. Some children are from families that are homeless, living in a vehicle or hotel room. Many do not have books of their own.

This truth was initially difficult to grasp for ministry founder Vicki Aiken, a retired teacher. As director of the church’s tutoring ministry, Aiken remembers giving participating children – students from these same neighboring elementary schools – books as gifts to end the year.

Their response was over the top; some of the kids were crying, Aiken recalled.

“I thought, surely, these kids have books. I couldn’t imagine them not having books,” she said.

Not only did they not have books of their own, she discovered, but also many of the children were at risk for the “summer slide” — an educational term where students lose academic progress when school is out of session.

Aiken and tutoring partner Jenny Stark, a middle school media specialist, started the book ministry so students could have their own summer reading material and keep up academically.

Each year, the nonprofit receives about 46 large shipping boxes filled with books, which are stored for free by the Gwinnett County School System. The church pays for shipping costs, which can top $2,000. Boxes are moved to the church several times a year so books can be sorted and repacked for each school.

The process takes an army of volunteers, with only a third coming from the church. These workdays attract high school sports teams, civic clubs, scouts, educators from the various schools, among others.

“It’s a huge community effort, and it’s just kind of grown,” Aiken said. “All the people deserve to be acknowledged because we couldn’t do it without all the volunteers.”

Volunteers also work the book fairs at each elementary school, some even taking a personal day off from work. The looks on the kids’ faces are priceless, Stark said.

Aiken said some children are reluctant to take the free books.

“The first year we did it, there was a little fellow who kept saying, ‘I can’t take the books, my dad can’t pay for them.’ It took four of us to convince him that this was a gift,” she said.

Lawrenceville Elementary Principal Grelauris Calcano said the book fairs are “a blessing” for students and teachers.

“Students have an opportunity to choose what they want to read, and that greatly increases their love and enthusiasm for reading,” she said.

They respond by sending thank you notes, which teaches them about community, Calcano said.

Like everything else, the pandemic threatened to cancel this year’s book giveaway. Instead, club members pivoted with an alternative plan: offering books to parents and their children in a drive-through in the church parking lot.

Because students had already been without their classroom and media center books for a couple of months, and public libraries had yet to reopen, club members said they couldn’t imagine not finding a way to at least give away some of the books for summer reading.

“Having something to put in their hands was very important to us,” Stark said.

Prisoners also get books

Book Club 165 has sent thousands of books to the Georgia Prison Library and is now collecting books for the Gwinnett County Jail.

After every book sort, the middle school and high school level paperback books are given to the Georgia Prison Library. The Gwinnett jail requested reading materials for inmates after daily activities were canceled due to COVID-19. The book club collected more than 3,000 books for the jail and is seeking an ongoing supply to send.

Donations of gently used or like-new children's books and adult paperback books are needed. Books can be dropped off at Lawrenceville First Baptist Church, 165 S. Clayton St., Lawrenceville, on Mondays and Wednesdays 10 a.m.-2 p.m., or contact