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Meet the Jewish Teen Who’s Making Sure Struggling Schools Get the Books They Need

alexa grabelle

The Challenge: Limited access to books in low-income communities.

The Solution: Bags of Books.

The Teen Who’s Making A Brighter Future: Alexa Grabelle of Voorhees, NJ

Alexa remembers being 10 years old when she heard the term “summer slide.” It’s common for students to regress a bit academically during the summer months when school is out. But Alexa learned that “summer slide” was a lot worse for kids in low-income communities, because there was a severe shortage of books and learning opportunities.

Alexa decided to start a program called Bags of Books, where she collected new and gently used books from schools, religious institutions, and businesses. She got hundreds of volunteers on board and to date, she’s helped give out more than 100,000 books to students in need. On an institutional level, Bags of Books donates thousands of books to struggling schools and libraries. Alexa also hosts “pop-up” bookstores in schools, where students are encouraged to come and pick out books to take home. Bags of Books is working with large companies to foster more book drives and with the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools. Alexa believes that literacy and a love for reading can truly change the national education landscape.

This year Alexa received a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award for her hard work. We caught up with Alexa to ask her more about Bags of Books.

What’s your favorite book?
“Jane Eyre”

Your favorite subject in school?
Economics

What’s the first book you remember really loving?
“It’s Your Cloud” by Joe Troiano

How did you learn about “summer slide”?
When I was in elementary school, I was encouraged to participate in a summer reading program to prevent the educational “summer slide.” I was not sure what this “summer slide” was so I began to do some of my own research reading articles about it online. When I learned that a large part of that slide stemmed from the simple fact that many young students from low-income backgrounds didn’t have easy access to books when out of school, I decided to make a difference.

How did you first start collecting books and distributing them?
I first started collecting books by approaching familiar locations such as my school, other local schools, health clubs, and religious organizations. As time progressed, I expanded to a variety of locations in my community and beyond. After I collected the first batch of books, together with my family, we sorted them by grade level, transported them to a school in Camden, New Jersey, and enabled all the students from pre-k through 8th grade to go home with a bag full of books they selected.

What are these pop-up bookstores like? Can anyone come and buy books?
Imagine cafeteria tables completely covered in layers and layers of children’s books available for the students of the school to be able to browse and select books of their choice to fill up a shopping bag and take home to start their own personal home libraries. We play upbeat music while the children “shop” for the free books. Many times the students even break into dance. Upon picking their books, the children sit with volunteers and read together and excitedly show each other their books! It is a magical experience to see a room full of smiling faces and the excitement is contagious!

What is the hardest part about running Bags of Books?
Currently, the hardest part about running Bags of Books is finding storage for the thousands and thousands of collected books prior to distribution events. Initially, the hardest part of starting this project was convincing people to take a risk and partner with a young child who was only 10 years old.

The most rewarding part?
The most rewarding part of Bags of Books is getting to see the children’s smiles, read their heartfelt thank you letters, and receive the hugs of students who received the books. I’m so thrilled when I see that I am helping to encourage children to love to read. The fact that donated books which otherwise would have stayed in someone’s closet or ended up in a landfill can bring such joy is a wonderful feeling!

Who would you say is your all-time hero?
My mom. I wouldn’t be who I am today if it weren’t for her guidance along the way.

What’s next for Bags of Books?
I am planning to expand Bags of Books to as many schools across the country that I can. I am always looking for schools, organizations, and companies who would like to partner with me to conduct book drives. Bags of Books’ biggest news has been the fact that this fall we conducted a book drive at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania, which has over 30,000 employees. During the past year, Bags of Books has also enlisted the help of companies who help fulfill their social impacts by conducting no-cost book drives for gently used children’s books. We have had large law firms and companies encourage their employees to clean out their closets for a good cause and then we partner the organization with a local school in need. These relationships are meaningful for all who are involved!

How about you? After high school, any plans?
I hope to go to business school and continue my path of becoming a social entrepreneur.

Anything else you’d like to say about Bags of Books or your Tikkun Olam award?
I am extremely grateful to the Helen Diller Family Foundation for honoring my work. Thanks to the Tikkun Olam Award I have been able to connect with other game changing youth across the country and hope to partner with them to continue working to repair the world.

This post is sponsored by the Helen Diller Family Foundation. To learn more about the foundation’s $36,000 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Awards, visit www.dillerteenawards.org.


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