Ann Arbor nonprofit distributes free kids' books to food pantries during school closures

Families who've used select local food pantries during the COVID-19 crisis have been able to take home a free bag of kids' books along with their groceries, thanks to the Ann Arbor-based nonprofit Children's Literacy Network (CLN).


CLN has assembled and distributed over 650 "literacy bags" to local food pantries since Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-home order was issued. Each bag contains three books aimed at varying reading levels between preschool and seventh grade, a calendar of simple literacy activities for families to try at home during the week, and a packet showing families how to log in to CLN's interactive reading website, CLN Reads. Families can log their reading, play literacy games, and request additional books to be mailed to them through CLN Reads.


CLN executive director Betsy Durant says the literacy bags initiative arose from CLN staff's concern about the extension of the "summer slide" – the decline in student achievement that occurs during summer vacation. Research has shown that decline is more pronounced for kids from low-income families, who have less access to resources that can help them keep learning over the summer.


"That academic gap that occurs every single summer between more affluent communities and lower-income communities actually is going to be about three months longer [because of school closures]," Durant says. "I know that the greatest concern right now is food for families and the health of families, and all of those things are truly important. But when the fall comes and hopefully we're back at school, that huge gap that happens is really going to have taken its toll."


CLN initially partnered with Community Action Network to distribute literacy bags at Bryant Community Center and Arrowwood Hills Community Center in Ann Arbor, then expanded to Hope Clinic and Strong Tower Ministries in Ypsilanti, Christian Love Fellowship Church in Superior Township, and other locations.


Although CLN staff generally haven't interfaced directly with the people who've picked up literacy bags, Durant says 85 of them have since registered for CLN Reads. Twenty-five parents and some kids have contacted her through the website. One young man was thrilled when CLN mailed him a copy of the graphic novel "Dogman" in response to his request.


"He specifically said, 'I have been waiting so long to get this book. I can't believe I can get this book and it's mailed directly to my house,'" Durant says.


When the stay-home order was issued, CLN's board allocated $2,000 to purchase books for literacy bags. Durant says CLN's donors have since donated more than enough to cover that expense, in addition to donating 500 new books for the effort. CLN is continuing to accept monetary donations through its website. Durant says those interested in donating new (not used) books can also contact CLN to schedule a contactless pickup.


"Knowing that [the summer slide] is only going to be larger than it was last year, we want to be able to fill that space and support families where they're at," she says. "We don't want them to have to come to us."


Patrick Dunn is the managing editor of Concentrate.


Photos courtesy of CLN.

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