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Today's Family Magazine

Cleveland Kids' Book Bank fosters a love of reading

By Deanna Adams

Electronics may capture more attention with kids these days, but there is still nothing better than sharing a book with your child. Just ask Judy Payne.

“I always read to my kids and even though they’re now grown, they still talk about the fond memories that books gave them when they were little,” Payne says.  “It’s been proven that having books in the home and reading to children makes a big difference in preparing them for a better academic future, and life in general.”

When Payne learned that two out of three low-income families had not a single children’s book in their home, she and colleague Judi Kovach decided to do something about that.  In 2016, they founded the Cleveland Kids' Book Bank, an organization that provides free books to children in need.  They support more than 120 neighborhoods by collecting new and gently used books to be given away to more than 100,000 Cuyahoga County children each year.

How do they do it?

Payne, who serves as executive director, says their nonprofit has always been a collective endeavor.  “Right from the beginning, we’ve had help. People have been so generous with their time, and funds.”

Payne and Kovach met while volunteering with The Little Free Library—small kiosks with books inside that are distributed throughout needed neighborhoods.  A Wisconsin man built the first one and there are presently 60,000+ registered libraries in more than 80 countries.

The two Shaker Heights women soon developed a plan to seek donations of books and redistribute them in different Little Free Libraries in the area. Today, they distribute an average of 62,000 books a month.  The books are stored and sorted in a massive Midtown Cleveland warehouse. “We have a mixed inventory of books ranging from board books for infants to young adult titles,” Payne says.  “We prepack boxes by reading level and work in large quantities, so we cannot take requests for specific titles.”

Aside from the Little Free Libraries, the organization also distributes books through social service agencies, schools, pediatricians, childcare centers and after-school programs.

While they receive books from a number of avenues, most come from their association with Discover Books, one of the largest online used booksellers.  Despite access to Discover Book’s library of hundreds of thousands of recycled children’s books, there is always need for replenishing.  “The books fly out as fast as we can fill them,” Payne says of the Little Libraries.

She and Kovach’s passion for books, along with their dedicated staff, drives the organization, and the stories they acquire nourish it.  “I’ll never forget when a couple told me of the day they were stocking one of the Little Libraries in the Collinwood area, and a woman came up and asked if she could have four of the books so she could get each of her children a Christmas present,” Payne recalls.  “Stories like that reinforce what we are doing.”

MomsFirst, an organization that teaches at-risk mothers to read with young children, was one of the first of many to receive books from The Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank, which partners with hundreds of organizations, such as the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, and WIC (Women, Infants, and Children Food and Nutrition Service), which also provide books to children.  In addition, they also get involved with HandsOn Northeast Ohio for its annual Homeless Stand Down event, which will take place on January 11, 2020.

Payne and Kovach’s work has been so impressive that in 2017, their book bank was selected for the $25,000 Anisfeld-Wolf Memorial Award from the Cleveland Foundation and the Center for Community Solutions for community service to families of children at risk.

Of course, the organization could not exist without volunteers.  There are a variety of ways you can get involved, from sorting and boxing books, stocking the Little Free Libraries, or helping with fundraising.

“As a nonprofit organization, we are always looking for individuals, foundations and corporations for whom our cause resonates,” Payne says.  “Our shifts are two hours long and we can accommodate individuals or groups up to 20 people, teens and older.  Businesses, schools and civic groups have all used it as a community/team building opportunity.” 

They encourage any group that serves children to order books through their website.  This includes pediatricians, pastors, coaches, tutors, food pantries and free lunch programs.

To sign up, Payne encourages you to visit their website and follow the tab to volunteer or to request books.

The Kids' Book Bank office is located at 3635 Perkins Avenue, Suite 1E in Cleveland.  For more information on getting books and/or to volunteer, see or call (216) 417-1803.