JFS Perspectives

Monday, August 21, 2017

Volunteer Spotlight: John Keith: How one volunteer’s efforts are helping JFS nourish kids’ bodies and minds

Volunteer Spotlight: John Keith: How one volunteer’s efforts are helping JFS nourish kids’ bodies and minds

In middle-income neighborhoods, the ratio of books per child is 13 to 1. In low-income neighborhoods, the ratio is 1 book for every 300 kids. In fact, 81 percent of low-income families have no books at all in the home for children. Along with a committed group of volunteers, JFS board member and volunteer John Keith is trying to change these startling statistics.

When John first volunteered with JFS’s Lunchbox Express program in 2014, he thought he would just be distributing lunches to low-income kids. At each stop on the bus routes on some of the days, there was a small cardboard box of books the children could take. “I was surprised to see how excited kids got about getting to take a free book home,” John says. “It was eye-opening that kids loved books that much.”

This observation sparked an idea to give out books every day and make this component a bigger part of the free lunch program. John adds, “I thought we could make a concerted effort to acquire more books so we would have more to give out.”

John took it upon himself to spearhead this project. Two years ago, he reached out to Denver Public Library and started forming a great relationship with the library’s foundation. We now receive thousands of books from their annual used book giveaway day and throughout the year, which has been the biggest source of the program’s books. Many community members have generously donated books as well.

After John figured out how to source the books, the challenge became how to better distribute them to the kids. He met with Nancy Benyamin, director of Volunteer Services, and told her his ideas to augment the book program. She then recruited a group of volunteers to help sort the donated books, which were stored on shelves that John bought and assembled in the Lunchbox Express warehouse.

Book volunteers: John Keith, Karen Kelly, Marlin Barad, and Susie CookA core group of volunteers—Marlin Barad, Janet Bronitsky, Susie Cook (a retired teacher), and Karen Kelly (a retired librarian)—have been instrumental to the program. Susie did a presentation at the volunteer training on how to help kids choose the right book for their reading level and interests. They organized the books by grade level and established a process for bus drivers and volunteers to get the right mix of books to each location. In addition to regularly keeping the books sorted and organized, these women each volunteer on a bus route.

“It’s a work in progress and we’re still figuring out the best ways to organize and display the books,” says Karen. Susie adds, “John has been a great leader and keeps us inspired. It’s been really fun and we’re doing good work!”

John agrees that they are all having fun, but stresses there is a bigger problem they’re trying to solve. “I’ve been researching the importance of books for low-income children and the facts are alarming. Children who arrive at school from homes where many books have been available are the students who do well in school, often despite other factors such as lower socioeconomic status or parental educational level. The bottom line is, if we can get more books into homes early on, we will help give kids a better start and a better life.”

Kids picking out booksWhile there is always more progress to be made, this program has become quite successful in a short period of time. This summer, JFS has distributed more than 10,000 books through Lunchbox Express. We are also starting to distribute children’s books in our office waiting areas.

JFS has received many heartfelt notes from kids receiving lunches and books, including “Thank you for providing us with free books so we can read our hearts away” and “Thank you for the food and books. My favorite thing is the books.”

If you would like to get involved as a JFS volunteer, please contact Nancy Benyamin, director of Volunteer Services, at 720.248.4642 or check out our volunteer opportunities.


Header photo (L to R): Susie Cook, John Keith, and Karen Kelly


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