Book Baskets distributed more than 23,000 books over the past year. Credit: Credit: Book Baskets

The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are just a few of the most popular books distributed by Book Baskets. But some kids want pink books or books about naked mole rats or the history of the United States.

Luckily, with Book Baskets, whatever they want, they can have.

Over the past five years, local nonprofit Book Baskets has given over 100,000 books to local, low income children. Unlike most book donation services, the children who benefit from Book Baskets get to select their own books, choosing from a wide variety of both new and used.

“We come with this big selection and we’re not just giving them a book at random,” said Ioline Henter, a Book Baskets board member. “They actually are choosing a book they want to read and then they get to keep it. They don’t have to return it to the library. They can reread it as many times as they want.”

Book Baskets works with 49 local agencies, including schools, social service groups, and a dentist office, dispersing books based on the group’s needs. The organization works only with groups who qualify as 70 percent or more low income. The top three recipients during the past year were The Community Dental Center, The Charlottesville Women, Infants, and Children Program and the Jefferson Area Children’s Health Improvement Program (CHiP).

“We work with each [group] on an individual basis to get them what they need for the population that they serve,” Henter said. “The populations are all united by the fact that they are all kids in need of books, but within each one we give a very flexible, personalized approach to helping.”

Founded in 1995, Book Baskets is currently composed of 14 board members and about a dozen volunteers, all unpaid. They work together, collecting used books from schools, book drives, and other venues, before sorting books by reading level and passing them on to other agencies.

The number of books distributed during the 2015-2016 year more than doubled the quantities from six years ago. A combination of increased book donations and grants has allowed Book Baskets to continue catering to the area’s needs.

“Because it’s a growing community, we’ve been able to keep pace with the growth and very rarely do we say ‘I’m sorry we don’t have those now,’” said board member Jenny Greyson.

The increase in funding from grants came when Karen Dolan joined the board in 2010. Since Dolan stepped on, Book Baskets has received over $30,000 from four different foundations and funds. Four percent of the Book Baskets budget goes to administrative work, including yearly donation letters and nameplates for books, and the rest is used to purchase books.

By using past grants and scouring second hand book sales, Book Baskets is able to ensure funding is used carefully. The average cost of a new book purchased is $1.41. They also are able to salvage almost all books that are donated directly, only passing on those that are inappropriate for children and teenagers.

Used books often arrive to them in poor condition, but the team does whatever it can to ensure the distributed books are in the best possible condition.

“We have a whole arsenal of tools: erasers, stickers, goo-be-gone,” Henter said.

Book Baskets hopes to not only encourage reading among children but to instill a sense of pride when it comes to collecting books. In each book, the organization places a name plate on which the book recipients must write their name or have a parent write their name.  

“We feel very strongly about book ownership,” said treasurer Susan Gainer. “This is your book. That’s pretty touching for a lot of them who don’t get a lot of books.”

By accumulating books, children can establish a connection with reading and benefit from the exposure to new words and stories.

“Vocabulary is so important in early childhood,” Greyson said. “These are fun books that hopefully the adults will have a good time reading with the kids and if the adults don’t have time, the kids can enjoy reading on their own.”

One of the programs that Book Baskets works with, CHiP, uses the books as an introduction to their program.

“Each time that a support worker goes out to a home visit, they try to take a book that’s appropriate with the child’s age,” said Office Administrator Desha Armengol. “We try to initiate reading to the children as a form of development in the home.”

Armengol also sees the books as a way to stimulate interaction between parents and children.

“It shows consistency if the parent is being able to read that book throughout the child’s growth and development,” she said.

A lot of the programs that Books Baskets work with cater to the same children, but that is not a concern to them.

“We know we’re seeing the same kids through a lot of different programs, but that is by design,” said Dolan. “That way they are building up a small library of their own.”

Book Baskets plans to continue working with the Charlottesville and Albemarle areas, focusing on increasing concentrated coverage, rather than looking to expand to other localities. They hope to find a new storage location, to replace the board member’s basement which is currently overflowing with books.

Henter, who is new to the Book Baskets board but has worked for years as a volunteer book collector, says she is continually awed by the scope of Book Baskets’ efforts.

“For many years I was not seeing the forest for the trees,” Henter said. “Then I went to a book sorting and I remember being gobsmacked by the volume of books that we were giving away. I realized the trickle I had brought in all those years had become a mighty river.”