The simplicity of reading is something that, as college students, is overlooked as a tool for success. The social media we digest and the textbook pages that shine dimly in the late hours of studying are things that can be seen as insignificant to educated individuals, yet life-changing to someone living in poverty, especially children. Out of the 22% of children that live under the poverty line, 61% do not have access to children’s books in their household. It can be easy to live in our Blacksburg bubble, forgetting about the rural and largely underfunded areas that encompass the New River Valley –– we are the ones that can make a difference in our neighbors’ lives.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, Penny Livesay, founder of the organization Open Book for the NRV, saw a division within our country, and “felt a large sense of hopelessness.” While studying education and teaching English at Virginia Tech, she felt that people were not receiving the education they needed, and “wanted to bring education into the lives of children, regardless of personal ideology.”
Livesay saw first-hand how books affected people’s education, and created a disparity between children in poverty and the middle class. She remarked on a statistic that had sparked interest in community change: “in middle-income neighborhoods the ratio of books per child is 13 to one, in low-income neighborhoods, the ratio is one age-appropriate book for every 300 children.” We are suffering from a mental famine.
Open Book is a community book-sharing project that supplies new children's books to NRV counties like Pulaski and Giles, through programs such as Head Start and Children’s Health Improvement Program (CHIP) that distribute books during home visits. Livesay described Open Book as an “aqueduct” that fills the distribution gap with books for NRV programs. They also have eight community book cases where children can access free books at businesses such as the Narrows Laundromat, Virginia Department of Health, NRVCS Mental Health Clinic, Community Health Center of the NRV Pearisburg and the NRV Jail.
When Livesay founded the organization, her initial goal was to give three books to every child in Giles County through the Head Start program; now, they distribute 1000 books each month to children in the NRV. In the early stages, Livesay would self-fund books from thrift stores, but now purchases books out of pocket from First Book Marketplace, which offers deeply discounted, new children’s books to organizations that serve children in need.
Despite this connection, Livesay says that the hardest part is finding books in good condition, since books for children under five are usually the most worn. It’s important to give these kids nice books, says Livesay, because “it shows that they are worth something, and that people care about them.” They can experience the feeling of having something new that is completely theirs, a sense of security hidden between the pages of Dr. Seuss books.
Livesay was concerned that no one would want the books, that shelves would go untouched and gather dust. However, children flocked to the community book cases, and began looking forward to reading. Open Book serves more than 325 families and is on track to donate 10,000 books yearly by the end of 2019. Through dozens of anecdotal stories, Livesay finds comfort in realizing that this is a fixable problem, but confusion as to why the government has abandoned New River Valley children’s education.
In the future, Livesay is hoping to expand Open Book to three more counties — Wythe, Smythe and Bland — by the start of the new school year. It can’t grow anymore, though, without the help of Virginia Tech students acting as a conduit for books. Livesay made a point that if 10,000 students thrifted or donated one book, children in the NRV would have a year’s worth of books. With the help of campus and Greek life organizations, such as Alpha Pi Omega, students are working to make literacy disparity a known problem. What community members can do to help the organization most is donate money through its online fundraiser to help buy books directly. Another way is to host a book-drive; email Livesay at firstname.lastname@example.org for additional information.
Despite politics, people of all backgrounds can share one common agreement: “our youth needs books.” As students with access to a great education, we should help those who don’t have the resources to receive the same opportunities. Every child deserves the chance to succeed.