“Why shouldn’t every kid in America have books?”
That question tugged at Larry Abrams MAT ’01 as a young teacher in Lindenwold, New Jersey, when he learned that many students in his economically disadvantaged district didn’t have access to books at home. And that question became his motivation with BookSmiles, a labor of love — and necessity — he started in 2017.
BookSmiles, his nonprofit based in Cherry Hill, has a simple mission: to get books into the hands of kids in New Jersey and the Philadelphia area who need them most. Numerous studies show that children without early exposure to books and reading will struggle more in school than children who do have that access. Abrams collects donated books and redistributes them to teachers and students in underserved areas.
“I like to say we are good at harvesting book wealth to irrigate book deserts,” he says.
His efforts earned him the Camden County Martin Luther King Freedom Medal in January.
“In the spirit of Martin Luther King’s work, we look for people who make a difference in the community and have an impact on others,” says Melinda Kane, a Camden County commissioner who awarded Abrams the medal.
Kane says a lot of people are good at seeing a problem, but it takes a special person to implement a solution to that problem, and that is really who the award is aimed for.
To date, BookSmiles has collected almost 450,000 books, with a goal to collect one million. Even through the pandemic, Abrams has given out more than 20,000 books each month.
“Abrams has so much compassion and his work fills such a void for so many people,” Kane says. “That is why we wanted to honor him.”
The next chapter for Abrams: He’s working with TCNJ’s School of Education to offer each 2021 teacher-to-be graduate a set of books to jump start their classroom libraries.
“I remember when I first started teaching, I had nothing and went dumpster diving for materials,” he says. “I just want to make it easy for people to get books.”
— Kara Pothier MAT ’08