Word gets around
Nonprofit brings books to Washoe County kids
Last month at two Washoe County elementary schools, every student in every grade was given five books, new or gently used, with which to start their own personal libraries. It was just a few thousand of some nearly five million books that have been distributed to students by a nonprofit called Spread the Word Nevada.
Rita Cannan Elementary School in Reno and Greenbrae Elementary School in Sparks were the first in Washoe County to be “adopted” by Spread the Word, which has distributed some 4.8 million books to more than half a million children in Nevada since its founding in Clark County in 2001. The group gives away nearly 60,000 each month, at least one to each student at the schools in which it operates.
The organization was founded by Lisa Habighorst and Laurie Hartig—both of whom have experience in the education system, Habighorst as a teacher and Hartig as a librarian. When the pair started Spread the Word Nevada, they hoped to build a program that would work with a handful of schools in Clark County’s low-income communities, where both women had noticed that children often lacked funds to purchase books during school book fairs. Over the course of 18 years, the number of schools their organization has adopted has grown to more than five dozen.
“It’s crazy,” Habighorst said from her Clark County office during a Nov. 26 phone interview. “On Friday, we take on our 58th school here, and next Wednesday our 59th—so two more before the holidays.”
In Washoe County, Spread the Word is, so far, offering its programs in just the two elementary schools. But Habighorst said her organization has identified an additional 20 schools to which it intends to expand.
“At this point, we really need volunteers and book donations and people invested in the community who want to see us grow up there,” she said. “I’m hoping we can take on those schools as soon as possible.”
Word of mouth
After receiving their initial five books apiece to start keep-at-home libraries, students at participating schools get two visits per month from Spread the Word. At each, kids have an opportunity to get at least one book. The first is a monthly event held during school hours. The second is another monthly program called “Breakfast with Books.” Students can bring their family members to a continental breakfast at the school. The organization gets the opportunity to talk with kids’ guardians about the importance of reading at home, and each attending family member receives a book to take home on behalf of their student. It adds up to potentially thousands of books per month, per school.
Habighorst said expanding to new schools will require the establishment of a regular supply of book donations and volunteers to distribute them.
“And financially—we need money to grow to those next schools,” she added. “We’ve got these two schools covered, but for us to grow we’re going to need some financial support to get into those other schools.”
While most of the books the organization distributes are donated and often used, there are costs associated with things like cleaning, storing and transporting them. In Clark County, Spread the Word keeps a 13,000-square-foot warehouse for cleaning and storing its books. In Washoe County, Habighorst thinks they’ll be able to make do for a few years in a 2,500-square-foot space on Gentry Way. In it, they keep an office space and a book cleaning room where volunteers erase marks and wipe down pages in used books, and a warehouse where these books are stored, along with select new ones chosen from popular titles to pique the kids’ interest.
“That’s one of our goals,” Habighorst said. “We want them to be popular books. We want the kids to read. Obviously, a lot of our children are struggling with reading, so if you hand them a book they’re not even interested in, it’s not going to happen.”
The group gets most of its new books from a clearing warehouse in Washington D.C. called First Book.
“We don’t even have to pay for the books,” Habighorst said. “They’re donated by the publishers. They’re overstock runs that they can’t sell or have too many of, and they donate them. We just pay shipping to get them to Vegas. They usually cost us 50 to 60 cents apiece.”
Ordering from clearing warehouses like First Book—which also helps distribute things like snacks, coats and sports equipment to low-income schools—is an affordable way to mix in glossy-covered, new books from contemporary authors. However, Habighorst stressed that Spread the Word relies mostly upon used books sourced from directly within the community—which is where the organization also turns for the volunteer manpower it needs to run its operation.
Get on the page
For those who may be interested in volunteering, Habighorst is always happy to make her elevator pitch on ways to get involved.
“The easiest way is to clean off your bookshelves,” she said. “If you have children and they have books they don’t read anymore, clean them off and donate them. Drop them by the office or call, and we have a van that we can use to come pick them up. That’s probably the easiest and most impactful way—because we’ll get those books right into the hands of a kid who needs them.”
Volunteers work in the warehouse to not only clean books, but also sort them based upon the grade levels for which they’re appropriate. (Spread the Word relies on teachers to help them identify kids who read above or below grade level to help them get the right books.) At the schools, volunteers help with the monthly events by delivering books and organizing them on tables for the kids to browse or helping to serve breakfast.
Habighorst said she’s hopeful about expanding her organization’s mission in Washoe County and hopes the approaching holiday season may inspire some of the initial volunteerism that’s needed.
“The kids were just great—the principals, the whole atmosphere,” she said. “I love your city. … We just need to get the community rallied around it and make sure they buy into what we’re doing. … Get involved if you can. Volunteer. Reach out to us. Make it your New Year’s resolution to change the life of a child through the power of books. Join us in that mission, please. It would be great.”