Meet the ‘Book Lady.’ She’s determined to donate 1 million books to Virginia kids

March 17, 2022
Education
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In her small town of Danville, Va., Jennifer Williams is widely known as the “book lady.” It’s a fitting title, as she is on a mission to donate 1 million books to local children.

“Wherever I go, I carry books with me,” said Williams, who has been a teacher for 32 years, and started buying and distributing books around her community, which sits near the North Carolina border, in 2017.

Last week, she reached a major milestone: She donated her 90,500th book.

Williams works two jobs to be able to fund her book-bestowing project, teaching fifth-graders at Chatham Elementary School and tutoring 19 students. Although she receives donations from friends and community members, she primarily pays for the books out of pocket. Most books she buys are new, although some are used and in good condition.

While Williams’s book giving officially kicked off in 2017, she has long been a lover of stories — and a believer that reading at a young age is a critical skill.

“My love of books came from my mother,” Williams said, adding that her mother was a librarian, who “read with us until each of the three of us went off to college, not just off to kindergarten.”

In her own teaching career, Williams realized the extent to which regularly reading books serves students well.

“There is such a clear divide you see with kids who have books at home,” said Williams, who has taught students from kindergarten to seventh grade. “There’s a discrepancy in how successful they are in school, their vocabulary, their ability to answer questions, their ability to relate to concepts — all of those skills are markedly different when they have access to books.”

Williams noticed the same pattern among the students she tutored, many of whom had few, if any, books of their own at home.

“Often the kids would be like, ‘Wow, that was a neat story. Can I keep that book?’ ” said Williams. “Over and over this would happen, and I decided I’m going to give away 900 books.”

In the summer of 2017, she donated 300 books — many of which she purchased online at a discounted teacher store and at Goodwill — to children in three low-income communities. Once she fulfilled her goal of giving 900 books to children who didn’t have access to their own, she was eager to do more.

“I want to do something bigger. I want to give away a million books,” she told her husband one night that summer.

She was motivated, in part, by Dolly Parton. In 1995, Parton founded Imagination Library, a nonprofit book-giving program for children, and in 2018, she donated her 100 millionth book.

“Dolly Parton is a generous giver of books, which should inspire us all to give time and effort to things we believe in,” Williams said.

And so began Williams’s enduring commitment to buy and give away books to young people across Danville. On top of delivering big batches of books to several elementary schools multiple times per year, she also ensures the 40 Little Free Libraries within 30 miles of her home are always stocked with books suited to people of all ages.

“I make sure they’re full,” said Williams, adding that her front porch is often packed with boxes of books that neighbors have dropped off to support her efforts.

On March 2, in celebration of National Read Across America Day, Williams gave all 245 students at Chatham Elementary School a brand-new book of their choice, which she paid for. Since 2017, she estimates she has spent tens of thousands of dollars on books, she said.

Williams picks out popular books as well as some niche titles, with characters that the students can relate to.

“I’m always looking for diverse titles,” she said, explaining that she spreads the books across a table in the hallway, and students are called up by grade to browse and choose a title that looks interesting to them.

She also consults with school principals before making deliveries, to make sure “there are enough books for everybody.” Seeing the students smile as they select their book is “what keeps me doing it,” Williams said.

Wanda Carter, the principal of Chatham Elementary School, vouched for Williams’s unwavering efforts to help students hone their reading skills.

“A lot of our children fall below the poverty line, and just being able to read and having that skill will set them up to better improve their lives,” Carter said. Since Williams started donating hundreds of books per year to students, “I see them reading more.”

As an educator, “she truly is dedicated,” Carter said of Williams. “She doesn’t just talk the talk; she walks the walk.”

While Williams has decided to focus her book-giving efforts on elementary students, as “it’s very hard to make up those lost years,” she never denies a prospective reader the opportunity to delve into a new book, regardless of their age.

“I’m well known now as the ‘book lady,’ so moms that don’t even necessarily know me will message me and say: ‘Can my kid get some books?’ ” said Williams, who chronicles her initiative on a Facebook page called “Joy of Reading.”

In addition to donating thousands of books to elementary students and local families each year, Williams also coordinates and leads a weekly women’s book club — which is called the “Second Chance Book Club” — at the Danville Jail. All books are donated by members of the local community.

Since the first meeting in December 2019, “we’ve read 61 novels,” Williams said, adding that she was inspired to start the book club upon considering the “direct correlation between literacy ability and incarceration rates.”

The members of her book club range in age from 19 to 70, and generally, “these are people who weren’t readers,” Williams said. Before long, though, “they started loving it. I’ve had readers who have read more than 8,000 pages in the last two years.”

Local officials said they’ve noticed a palpable difference the book club has made for the women.

“It is clearly paying off,” said Mike Mondul, the sheriff of Danville. “My sense is that it’s really having an impact on their lives and giving them someone to believe in them.”

Mondul said Williams’s work is singular in the community.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s very special,” Mondul said. “The more you read, the more you learn; the more you learn, the better you can make good decisions.”

For Williams, that’s what it’s all about.

“My goal is to make people’s lives better,” she said.

Williams still has about 909,500 books to go, but she’s undaunted by that number.

“I will work as long as I need to in order to donate my millionth book,” Williams said. “Even at that point, I will continue to encourage people to read.”

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