With Easter around the corner, The Bookmobile’s officials are excited to help kids expand their love of reading. Online sign-ups are underway through March 25 for the literacy organization’s Everybunny Loves Reading Easter Basket for youth up to age 11.

“The event’s purpose is twofold,” said Valerie Gilreath, executive director of The Bookmobile: Reading to Go Places. “No. 1 — It is a way to further our mission of increasing access to books. Last year, we distributed 206 books via Easter baskets. Sixty-six percent of the books were in donated baskets delivered to 72 children in our community residing in shelters or transitional housing. Those may be the only books these children have.

“In that way, this fundraiser is a unique opportunity to provide books to a specific population who need our services but may not always have access to them. No. 2 — The event raises money for Bookmobile programs, including summer outreach, book giveaways and Little Free Libraries. Proceeds from Everybunny will purchase giveaway books, educational materials and supplies for little library maintenance.

Along with a plush and chocolate bunny, each basket will contain age-appropriate books, toys, candy and snacks. Area residents also can purchase a basket and donate it to a child in need.

“We solicited feedback from friends who are parents or grandparents of small children prior to launching the event that first year, and it was one of them who suggested offering an option to purchase and donate a basket to a child in need,” Gilreath said. “I am grateful for the feedback both because it has been a popular option and because it gives us an opportunity to provide some Easter joy for children who otherwise may have gone without. We work with the Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter, Advocates for Children and Tranquility House to identify families to receive the baskets.”

Gilreath shared Everybunny continues to be “well-received” by the community, with many area residents viewing it as a “win-win.”

“They get to make a donation, and we do all of the running around shopping and compiling baskets,” Gilreath said. “We have parents who count on it each year. The fact that the same families participate year after year tells me they are satisfied with the product we are providing. Plus, it continues to grow, so I hope that means people are sharing the opportunity with their friends.

“Our nonprofit partners also really appreciate and rely on this outreach to serve the young children in their care at Easter. Those children deserve to experience the same joy on Easter morning as their peers from better resourced families. I worried last year that increasing the necessary donation for a basket from $25 to $35 would negatively impact the event, but thankfully that was not the case. It was simply a response to rising prices on the elements that go into a basket. Baskets remain $35 this year.”

Over the years, Gilreath has witnessed various special moments surrounding this outreach.

“Every year there is at least one person who contacts me and says, ‘I have a friend who is going through a really hard time. I want to purchase baskets for her children,’” Gilreath said. “In one case, the ‘hard time’ was due to illness in the family. In another case, the family was technically homeless and staying nights with a variety of friends and family.

“I had a mother contact me through Facebook Messenger last year. I don’t know how she heard about The Bookmobile or the outreach. She messaged The Bookmobile to say she and her three children were living in their car, and she couldn’t afford to get them anything special for Easter. She asked if we could provide baskets for them through the Everybunny program.”

Upon speaking with her, Gilreath agreed to help.

“I met her one afternoon in an Ingles parking lot while the children were in school and helped her stash the baskets in the already full trunk,” she said. “The car appeared to hold all their belongings. She was grateful for the kindness.”

As Gilreath noted, Everybunny also serves as a fundraiser for The Bookmobile.

“The Bookmobile is funded through individual donations, business sponsors, fundraising events and grants,” she said. “Fundraising events, including Everybunny, account for 35% of our annual budget. Without the support of the Bartow community through benefits, such as this, we could not continue the work we do.

“I am grateful to our sponsor, Southland Engineering, for their long-standing support of The Bookmobile in general and this event specifically every year.”

Founded in July 2017, The Bookmobile first concentrated its efforts in south Bartow and later extended its service area.

“The Bookmobile gives away books to encourage children to build their own home libraries,” said Kim Dennis, program director for The Bookmobile. “In the summer, we provide summer reading programs for children in Bartow County neighborhoods.

“Since its inception, The Bookmobile has partnered with the school system’s Summer Feeding programs to provide free children’s books at several lunch distribution sites during summer break. In 2023, The Bookmobile gave away 14,022 books to children in Bartow and made 72 different bookmobile stops, including after-school programs, childcare centers, parks, community centers, special events and others.”

Overall, the literacy organization has given away more than 44,000 books to help families read with their loved ones.

“We maintain an enrollment of roughly 3,500 children in Bartow’s Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library program,” Dennis said. “This program mails one age-appropriate book to each child every month until their fifth birthday. In 2023, this program served a total of 4,345 children, graduated 895 children and distributed 41,153 books.”

Further details about the Everybunny outreach can be obtained on The Bookmobile’s Facebook page and website, https://readingtogoplaces.org/product/everybunny.

“The Everybunny baskets are a fun way to introduce more kids to reading,” Dennis said. “We want parents to realize incorporating books into gifts is a great way to keep kids excited about reading. I want kids to value a good book like they value a great toy.

“Increasing the number of age-appropriate books in the home is the principal factor in getting children to read and building their reading skills. A child who cannot read on grade level by the end of the third grade is four times more likely to drop out of school.”