Skip to Content

Waiting for “Somebody”

“Why doesn’t somebody do something about this?”

How often do you say or think these words?

Books for Keeps is the story of what happens when you decide to stop waiting for somebody, and decide to be that somebody.

The key? Stop sabotaging yourself before you even get started.

Think small: address the need right in front of you, without taking on responsibility for the larger, more systemic problem at hand. Try it; it might change your life.

Access to Books

Six years ago, I met a little girl who loved to read, but was facing a summer without books—not a single book in her home, and no access to the public library. In the process of inquiring about how to help, I learned of a well-documented achievement gap between children from low-income families and their middle-income peers. Much of this gap, known by researchers and educators as “summer slide,” is due simply to unequal access to reading material.

Studies have measured the impact: a loss of 2-3 months’ worth of achievement that compounds every year, by the sixth grade. From there, it’s usually a downward spiral, with losses compounding, increasing drop-out rates and reducing job prospects.

My first thought upon learning this was: “Why doesn’t somebody do something about this?” My next thought was “I am somebody. I can do something.”

And then the self-sabotage kicked in. There were over 14,000 children in the Clarke County School District, with approximately 80% of them from low-income families. With no children of my own, no background in literacy or education, what could I possibly do?

I decided to do nothing. What was the point?

But I kept remembering that little girl, with a persistent feeling I’ve come to recognize over the years as God telling me to pay attention. So I decided to simply help one little girl, and as many of her second grade classmates as I could, even if I didn’t think it would make a difference.

I asked for help and people started raising their hands, saying “I can do something.” We gave books to that little girl and 79 of her classmates. The next year, we had enough for 200 children.

For two years I plodded forward, wondering where this was leading, and reminding myself to focus on the need right in front of me.

Finding a Purpose

Melaney Smith, MDS graduate and Books for Keeps founder, sorts children’s books

My purpose became clear when someone sent me information about a study by renowned reading researcher Dr. Richard Allington. He identified a simple solution to summer slide: give them books. 12 books each, to be precise, at the end of the school year.

This simple solution side-steps accessibility issues such as income, proximity to a library, and parental involvement or abilities. After three years, children receiving books showed achievement improvements statistically similar to attending summer school.

This wasn’t about throwing books at children and hoping some of them started reading on their own. This was a specific method for giving books to children – the right books, at the right time, in the right quantities – to have an impact on their educational futures.

I asked for help again, and hands across America raised in response: “I can help.” With that, Books for Keeps was born.

Six years later, Books for Keeps gives away 45,000 books each year, and the program is working! Ph.Ds at University of Georgia are helping us quantify the impact, and Books for Keeps is taking its first steps to become a statewide organization.

I recently got a glimpse into the ripple effect this philosophy of “being the someone who does something” has had in my community. In August I was selected as one of 10 L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth, a national recognition that kicked off with a crew coming to Athens to film a video.

The crew interviewed everyone from students to the school superintendent, and the stories were so much more than I expected.

Melaney sharing books with a student

Teachers who had been desensitized by the sheer magnitude of need in front of them, now remembering that filling one small need for one child is still worth doing. Senior citizens who have found a renewed sense of worth through working with children, using their retirement years to make a difference in the community. Children used to feeling “less than” their classmates, filled with pride and a sense of “same as” on Books for Keeps day.

Books for Keeps is pioneering a solution that shows early promise in bringing about measurable, lasting, life-changing results for children in need, all because thousands of somebodies each do something to help us.

You are somebody.

You can do something. Look for the need right in front of you, and take one small step to do something about it.

You will stop seeing people as nameless, faceless demographic groups, and recognize them as God’s children who are worth your time and effort.

You’ll begin to understand that one dollar, one hour does, in fact, matter.

What will you do?

By Melaney Smith (’84), Books for Keeps Founder and L’Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree