Through schools, churches and other supporters, Jennifer Williams collects supplies to help kids read.
CHATHAM – Last week, ‘The Book Lady’ Jennifer Williams hit a new milestone. Upon visiting Chatham Elementary School in Chatham, she gave away her 63,300th book completely free of charge.
The idea began as a goal the retired teacher of 28 years set three years ago.
A Love of Reading Drives The Book Lady
Williams’ love of reading started early. As she and her siblings grew up, their librarian mother read books to them often.
“[She] read to us, all three of us, every day until we went off to college – not until we went to kindergarten, until we went to college,” Williams said. “She had great books.”
Even throughout high school, Williams’ mother continued asking her teenage children leading questions about what they read.
“She’d go, ‘I don’t really think that was a good idea, do you?’” Williams said. “I mean, spark different conversations about how would we act, what would we do in a situation? Things like that.”
Following graduation, Williams went to college and then landed an elementary school teaching position. She took her love of reading into her classroom. However, she realized that not all families shared the same passion for the skill she so enjoyed.
“It’s very, very obvious to us – well to any teacher, but especially to teachers of young children – kids who have books, kids who don’t have books, kids who are read to – you know, when you’re talking to kindergarten, first graders – kids that are read to versus kids that are not,” Williams said. “It becomes very obvious at the end of the first day of school.”
The trend also trickled into the summer months, when Williams tutored children. She packed books into her backpack for children to read. When they finished a title they enjoyed, multiple students had a similar question.
“Kids would go, ‘Oh, wow! Can I keep that?’” Williams said.
Williams oftentimes wrote the child’s name in the book, so that after several children read it, that child could have it. The same scenario occurred two summers in a row, with Williams giving away the books she carried.
An Ambitious Idea
The tutoring interactions sparked an idea. Williams chose to participate in Engage Danville, a yearly event where churches in Danville got together to serve the city.
Oftentimes, groups build ramps for the elderly or show up at laundromats with coins for the washing machines. They participate in activities that make life better for residents in their community.
Williams decided to focus on the children.
She started collecting books with a goal of giving away 300 each day of the special three-day weekend. Friends heard about her endeavor and started donating. Before long, Williams had nearly 1,000 gently used or new books to her name. That Friday, Saturday and Sunday, she gave away a total of 900 books, allowing each child to pick out a title that interested them.
“I came home that night. I’m laying on our bed and my husband goes, ‘Well, that was great.’ You know, ‘Great job, you pulled it off,’” Williams said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, but anybody could do that. I want to do something that’s going to push the limits, to stretch my faith, my work ethic, my everything.’”
William’s husband noted that she worked all of the time as it was. But she wanted to do more.
“I decided right then and there, I was going to try to give away a million books,” Williams said.
A Positive Influence
Last week, Williams donated her 63,300th book to children at Chatham Elementary School.
Chatham Elementary School Principal Wanda Carter noted that over half of the pre-kindergarten through fifth graders qualify for free or reduced lunch. Not all families experience economic circumstances conducive to buying items outside of household essentials.
“Poverty is an issue here,” Carter said. “And I think it gives every child an opportunity to have a book of their own.”
Carter noted that her own love of reading began as a small child.
“Being able to read opens doors. I don’t care what your family situation is, being able to read, to me, opens the world to you, and opportunities that you may not have had. That is from my own [experience],” Carter said. “This school, I am a product of this school. I went to this school as a child. True enough, things were a little different then, but reading is why I’m here where I am today.”
Growing up with her mother and grandmother reading the comics from the newspaper to her made an impact that Carter carried throughout her life.
“It really opened doors. It truly did,” Carter said. “And I know that from my own experience, which is why I’m so passionate about [the book giveaway].”
The principal expressed excitement over the children utilizing the books.
“This is an opportunity for them to have reading in their home for free,” Carter said. “Hopefully it fosters a love of reading.”
The Book Lady Is Pulling It Off
Even though locals call her the Book Lady, Williams said she doesn’t do it all by herself. From book clubs to individuals, folks donate books or money to the cause, hammering away at some of the costs associated with the million-book goal.
“The more times people hear about it, we come home and there’s books left on our front porch,” Williams said.
In addition to the school giveaway, Williams also gives away books at events, leaves them in random places for children to find, and stocks Free Little Libraries.
She even hosts a book club in the local jail.
The 54-year-old said she chose the million-book goal because it sounded unreachable – unless she worked really hard.
If her book giveaway keeps going at the same rate as it has the past three years, she will reach her goal by age 92 (and y’all can expect a follow-up Dogwood story at that time).
Granted, she’s hopeful she’ll give away the one-millionth book sooner than that.
“I don’t really want to be 92 as far as when I do it, but that’s okay,” Williams said. “I’m willing to work at it. I’m willing to work at it and keep going.”
To follow along with her efforts and watch the book count rise, simply join William’s Facebook page, Joy of Reading.
Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]