Kim Dennis, left, and Valerie Gilreath founded Reading to Go Places in 2017. Since its inception, the literary outreach has supplied more than 30,000 new books to local children to help strengthen their home libraries. RANDY PARKER/THE DAILY TRIBUNE NEWS
Posted Friday, January 6, 2023 4:26 pm
BY MARIE NESMITH
For Kim Dennis and Valerie Gilreath, The Bookmobile: Reading to Go Places continues to be a labor of love. Through this effort and its signature mobile lending library, the Cartersville couple is helping increase childhood literacy across Bartow County.
“Our commitment to the mission of Reading to Go Places is strengthened by our commitment to one another,” Gilreath said. “We sacrificed a lot personally in the first few years of operation to get the program up and running and grow it into what it is today. Kim left corporate America and treated The Bookmobile like her full-time job even though she did not get paid for the first three years.
“I also worked on it like a second job on top of my Bartow County government duties. We poured all of our time, energy and money into the organization until it could gain traction with volunteers, donors and grant-makers. We didn’t take a vacation for four years. We did it willingly and joyfully.”
In 2017, Dennis and Gilreath established the organization, now known as Reading to Go Places.
Gilreath became the operation’s part-time executive director Jan. 1 and Dennis is its program director. Gilreath previously served as the president of Reading to Go Places’ board of directors, and was the co-founder and treasurer of the Bartow Literacy Council.
“We saw the perpetuation of generational poverty in certain pockets of Bartow County, and we wanted to create a service that would help break that cycle,” Gilreath said. “Education is the pathway out of generational poverty and education begins with childhood literacy.
“The gap we saw in many existing programs was they expected the client to come to them. It was clear to us that any successful program would have to be mobile and meet people where they are. Hence, The Bookmobile.”
Dennis shared the organization’s mission is “improving literacy by increasing access to books and information.”
“Studies have shown that the most significant factor influencing a child’s early school success is exposure to books and being read to at home prior to beginning school,” she said. “Children who enjoy reading typically do better in school and are more likely to graduate and go on to be financially stable adults.
“Increased literacy has immediate benefits for children and families as well. Books provide quiet and calm; offer entertainment, comfort and companionship; provoke discussion and curiosity; stimulate imagination and play; impart knowledge; give parents more opportunities to bond with their children; and so much more.”
Calling 2022 “a year of tremendous growth,” Gilreath said the organization “grew and diversified the type of programs” it offers and how many children and families are served, as well as strengthened its donor and volunteer base.
Some of the group’s 2022 accomplishments included distributing summer book bundles for all —nearly 600 — pre-K/rising kindergarten students enrolled in the Bartow County School System; giving away a total of 10,365 books — the most in any single year; and the Bartow Literacy Council merging with Reading to Go Places and now operating under the latter’s banner.
“There were so many wonderful moments with the children in 2022 but a few did really stand out for me,” Dennis said. “Distributing pre-K bundles with a Bookmobile visit to multiple primary schools in the county was particularly enjoyable for me.
“I adored seeing their joy when they learned that the books in the bundle were theirs to keep ‘forever.’ This response from children, seeing their joy in book ownership, always reminds me why I do what I do.”
Along with its mobile library, Reading to Go Places gives away books at various events; promotes literacy at after-school offerings and child-care facilities; supervises 38 Little Free Libraries; and locally oversees Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.
Initially focusing its efforts in south Bartow, Reading to Go Places has expanded its reach over the past five years. Overall, the literacy outreach has provided more than 30,000 new books to local children to bolster their home libraries. The reading materials are geared toward children up to age 18, although the majority of youth served are 12 and younger.
“We continue to offer a mobile lending library at locations where we make routine repeat visits,” Gilreath said. “In 2022, those locations were the Allatoona Resource Center and Douglas Street United Methodist Church. Two hundred twenty-one books were checked out this past year. Since inception in July 2017, 2,173 books have been checked out from the mobile library. By comparison, we have now given away 30,114 books in that same time period — not including Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library.”
Highlighting experiences at numerous Bartow sites, Reading to Go Places’ Facebook page is filled with pictures of children looking through or gleefully clutching books from the literacy outreach. One of these locations is IMU Douglas Street UMC, which hosts the Hands of Christ After School Program for grades six through 12.
“For a number of years, we have been privileged to have The Bookmobile as an invaluable resource for both Hands of Christ students and neighborhood children,” said Angela Rivers, IMU Douglas Street UMC’s pastor and director of its Hands of Christ program. “The Bookmobile is at our site weekly during summer lunch. They also provide books for our students during the school year.
“It is impossible to describe the joy at watching students eagerly looking through the shelves for a book. The take-home bags of books to keep provide books to students living in homes where there literally may not be any other books. Numerous studies have shown that the presence of books in the home contributes to improved literacy rates. The Bookmobile and the work of Kim and Valerie promote not only improved literacy rates by fostering a love for books and reading, but also provide hope and a broadened world view for children in poverty.”
Echoing Rivers’ comments, Patricia Jennings underscored the importance of Reading to Go Places’ offerings. She is the librarian for the Etowah Area Consolidated Housing Authority’s after school program at the Summer Hill Complex.
“The Bookmobile is currently supplying all new and current book titles,” Jennings said, adding the after school program currently serves 19 students in grades one through seven. “We are truly grateful for their support with consistent, relatable, relevant and age-appropriate selections.
“My experiences are many — watching each child step into The Bookmobile with smiles and expectations of new and wonderful Ideas. Exiting with this response, ‘I’m so happy — thank you!’”
Among the students who have flourished with Reading to Go Places’ assistance is RJ Pressley, a third grade student at Allatoona Elementary. Through the years, the 9-year-old has visited The Bookmobile at his school and the Allatoona Resource Center.
“I think RJ was 5 the first time we visited, and he was very excited and looked forward to getting more books,” his mother, Amy Pressley, said. “It really helped him be more excited about reading and as a parent I can’t be more proud of how much he loves to read now. He has really got into Dog Man books this year and chapter books.
“Everyone is always so nice and friendly and know RJ by name,” she said about Reading to Go Places. “And he loves that his reading has improved so much over the years.”
Looking back, Gilreath is thankful her mother read to her “constantly” when she was young, helping give her a “solid basis to begin school and excel there.” Gilreath’s family was initially lower-middle class, but they began to struggle more financially after her father was laid off from his job when she was 10.
“We went years without health insurance,” Gilreath said. “My father worked two jobs and my mother worked long hours. I was that ‘under-resourced’ kid that The Bookmobile now targets.
“The kid that doesn’t travel or visit museums or get experience-building activities during the summer. The summers were long and lonely. I read to pass the time. I read to escape my surroundings because I couldn’t actually leave.”
In addition to developing her imagination and providing a sense of enjoyment, books helped Gilreath thrive academically.
“Growing up, the only people I encountered who went to college were my teachers and doctors,” said Gilreath, who served as director of Bartow’s Grant Writing Department, before retiring April 1. “No one I knew well had ever stepped foot onto a college campus. Everything I knew about college, I learned from television sitcoms and dramas. People with money went to college, and I wanted to be one of those people. That was my primary motivation growing up. In my juvenile mind, money was the key to self-sufficiency and education was the key to having money.
“As an adult, of course I understand that there is more complexity to all of these issues. However, I still believe education is the key to having options. Education creates opportunity. It’s up to us what we do with that opportunity, but a lack of education often leaves someone stuck without choices.”
Reflecting on the organization’s journey, Gilreath shared it is “gratifying and humbling to see” Reading to Go Places transform into its present-day operations.
“I still remember my amazement when the first stranger donated money to the program,” she said. “It was always our hope and intention that the organization would grow from a passion project into a self-sustaining entity separate from us, but to witness it happening is surreal. The way the program resonated with the community exceeded our expectations, both from the client/user side and the supporter/donor side, and I am so grateful.”
Further details about Reading to Go Places can be obtained by visiting http://readingtogoplaces.org, emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or following the organization on social media: Facebook @bookmobile and Instagram @readingtogoplaces.
“Watching a child look through one of our books gives me hope,” Gilreath said. “When I see a child’s face transform from ‘ho-hum’ to a wide smile because they experience that moment of recognition, something that sparks their interest or makes them feel seen and heard, I have hope that reading will give them all of the gifts it gave me, and hope that these gifts will make their lives happier and more fulfilled.”