Joe Nolting of "Kids Need Books" in a face shield and books displayed outside on a table

Kids Need Books came to life in 2016 after a conversation with Alderwood Elementary School kids. Joe Nolting, a community volunteer and a few other volunteers asked the kids if they were looking forward to the summer. Some kids expressed that they weren’t and one of the reasons why was that they wouldn’t have access to books. The school library would be closed and there are no libraries close to their school.

Looking to address this gap, Nolting saw an opportunity. Alderwood had a satellite food bank in the school gym during the summer. Nolting decided he would collect some books and hand them out during the same hours as the food bank.

“It was going to be a one-time deal. Get a few boxes of books and hand them out one evening,” Nolting said. “Quite a few kids and parents were excited, so I did it for another week. And then, it was just supposed to be for that summer, but ended up continuing into the school year.”

The program quickly expanded to different locations around the county. What started with a couple of boxes of books being given out, now, four years later, is tallied at over 110,000 books distributed, and the program is still going. Nolting cited research that said kids who grow up in homes with libraries of at least 100 books are more likely to do well in school.

“It’s not just important for kids to have access to books, but it’s really important for kids to own books,” Nolting said. “When I grew up my family didn’t have a lot of money, but we had lots of books. In this program, we really encourage families to keep the books and grow their own libraries.”

Since the pandemic, getting books to kids has been a challenge. With the satellite food bank locations being shut down due to COVID, access to families was cut off.

Nolting reached out to Bellingham Public Schools to ask for help and was connected with volunteer coordinator Jennifer Gaer. Gaer saw an opportunity for Nolting to distribute books through Food Lifeline, an organization that gave out pantry boxes in summer 2020, extending weekly food supplies for families.

“Joe quickly realized many of the residential locations for Food Lifeline could also be book distribution sites,” Gaer said.

Thinking of creative ways to distribute the books, he set up tables outside and wore personal protective equipment. He has even set up in a laundry room, with the doors open, and everyone masked.

“Joe has been totally flexible and adaptable to the school closures identifying potential distribution sites, working with folks and schedules to ensure kids had access to books this summer,” Gaer said. “He also has multi-lingual books, knows his audience and is clearly passionate about igniting a love of reading to kids.”

Bilingual books including word books and pictures books in English and Spanish are frequently needed and seldom donated. Nolting also noted the desire for books that are contemporary.

While some sources of book donations have closed in the pandemic, Nolting said for those who want to help you can donate funds through Interfaith Coalition, noting Kids Need Books in the memo, or donate books directly to Nolting. See contact information below.

Recently published books are especially valuable, Nolting said. “Whether the kid comes from a wealthy family or low-income, they want to read the same books their friends are reading.”

Nolting expressed thanks to his group of volunteers who have helped over the years with collection, sorting and distribution.

“People have been so generous with donating books and funds. This is an incredibly challenging time and we are doing the best we can. We are still getting hundreds of books out to kids every week,” Nolting said.  “Anything we can do to get high quality books into their hands is going to help kids get through this really hard time.”

Have gently used books to donate? Contact Joe Nolting at info@knbbellingham.org.

For more information about Kids Need Books or to make a donation to Interfaith Coalition.

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