Scores of children flocked to the Kona Ice truck parked near the entrance of Hearthwood Apartments one early evening last week. Many of them exchanged a small, wooden token for a cup full of colored ice. Just a few feet away from the truck was a renovated school bus, filled with books for children and teens, in many translations like Spanish and even Arabic.
Sharon Stone smiled as she handed a child a book. A little girl asked if she could have a bag to carry her four books. The truck ran out of bags just moments ago.
Stone was manning the Free Book Bus, a mobile effort to bring books at no cost to children and young adults throughout the Charlottesville city, Albemarle County and neighboring localities. Stone drives the bus to areas in which access to a public library is slim, or to neighborhoods near Title I schools, institutions in which at least 40% of the students are low-income.
“It feels wonderful to be doing this — I tell people I feel a little bit like I drive an ice cream truck,” Stone said.
The idea for the bus, which is nonprofit, started as a way to encourage reading among underserved children. Stone, who works part time at the University of Virginia School of Medicine and as an online English teacher to Chinese students abroad, invested her own money into buying the short school bus and thrifting children’s books in 2018.
Since then, the Free Book Bus passed out over 20,000 books, 9,500 of which were distributed since the start of the pandemic, Stone said. Today, roughly 70% of the books on the bus were bought through donated funds or grants.
“The minute people heard about it, people started donating books,” said Stone. “And now people are donating money.”
At its fullest, the bus can hold up to 1,400 books.
When the pandemic hit early last year, Stone found herself in a conundrum. She had to switch strategies and find a way to service children from a safe distance. At first she passed out books in plastic zipper pouch bags, but found that method to be unsustainable.
“For about two months, I was sort of paralyzed,” Stone said. “Like, what am I going to do?”
One day while working near an old playground she found her answer: a slide.
Attached to the back of the colorful bus sits a ten-foot, wavy slide Stone recovered from an old playground set. Stone would ask each child which book they wanted, and pass it down the slide.
“It worked out great,” Stone said.
Now, up to five children, with masks, are allowed to comb through the bus’s collection when parked.
Charlottesville resident April Naylor, 41, gently swayed her two-month old son as she waited for her older children to get out of the Free Book Bus last Friday. Her children love to read Pokemon and Franklin the Turtle books.
While she waited, the mother of four spoke about how difficult the transition to virtual school during the pandemic last year was for her family. Like many parents across the nation, Naylor had to play teacher when schools went virtual. She recalls the challenge of getting her 8-year-old son to focus on the screen. Getting him to understand that the teacher was talking to him was most difficult.
“It was stressful,” Naylor said.
That same son, Naylor said, also relied on additional reading help from his elementary school. The Free Book Bus events at the apartment complex provided the family with additional aid as they awaited for schools to reopen.
“Yeah, it’s been great,” said Naylor.
Stone drives the bus to at least three different locations a week.
She started her nonprofit as a one woman show with additional help from her family. The organization’s leader is currently in the midst of partnering with Madison House, an independent student volunteer center at UVA, to help with its events.
“Right now I just have a handful of dedicated independent volunteers,” Stone said.
Stone hopes to earn enough grants to operate the bus full time.
The sun was starting to set as Stone and her volunteer began to end their Hearthwood Apartments stop. Both the Free Book Bus and the Kona Ice truck were scheduled to be at Greenbrier Elementary School within the hour. Stone was expecting at least 600 kids to be in attendance.
“Usually, I like to give two books per kid because I like even numbers, but at [Greenbrier] we’re just going to do one,” Stone said.
That Friday, the Free Book Bus gave out about 500 books. To learn more about this nonprofit or make a contribution, click here.