East Bay Children’s Book Project to close after losing lease

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On a recent Tuesday afternoon, teachers, administrators and school members were filling their suitcases, boxes, laundry bags and crates to capacity. “How many items do you have?” asked volunteer Amanda Kondrashova. Common responses ranged from 27 to over 70. “I can’t carry the whole thing. I have to do it in stages,” said Betsy Sharf, referring to the 80 items she had grabbed.

What were these desired items? Free children’s books. Since 2005, the East Bay Children’s Book Project, based in West Oakland, has given over 1.6 million new or barely-used books to children. But after years of hard work and numerous volunteer hours, the program is temporarily closing down after losing their lease. 

At their current location, 955 12th Street in Oakland, the volunteers of the East Bay Children’s Book Project are preparing to pack away their beloved books. In the front room are a few rectangular tables with almost-empty crates of books.  Every Tuesday and Thursday, the program opens its door to welcome book grabbers from different schools and nonprofit organizations.

On the left side of the room is a dual registration and check out desk. First time book grabbers must complete a three-minute registration paper, while repeat visitors walk straight to the back room, where there is enormous racks of books. Each book is organized into crates on the rack into 10 different categories including nonfiction, fiction, chapter books, comic books and book series. Quotes from hang down from the pieces of paper on the ceiling.

Roaming around the room on Tuesday was Redni Voorhies. She is a retired school teacher and former librarian who began volunteering in 2010. Using her expertise in books, she walked around the room, excitedly giving helpful suggestions to those selecting books. She believes books are a necessity for children to have. “Kids who have books in their homes are more likely to become readers than kids who don’t,” she said.

Ann Katz, the director of the East Bay Children’s Book Project, is a former middle school teacher. After teaching for about 40 years, she and two others retired from the classroom, and shared the dilemma of what to do with the books they had collected. They decided to combine their collections and donate them.

But what they expected to be a small project quickly expanded. “We thought, ‘Oh, we’ll give away 1,000 books,” said Katz. “We gave away 12,000 our first year. We were really proud.”

All the books collected through the program have been donated by other teachers, libraries and nonprofits. Katz believes it’s important to only receive books in great condition. “We only take new and gently used. We don’t take anything damaged. I don’t want to give to kids who have never had anything a book that looks like trash,” she said. “I want it to say you’re special, this is a special book.”

The book grabbers have different reasons for coming to the East Bay Children’s Book Project. Dana Anderegg, a 4th grade teacher at Cox Academy, a grade school in East Oakland, used a pushcart to wheel out her massive collection of books. “We’re having a literacy night at our school,” she said. “We want to be able to hand out books to all the kids to take home with them.”

Aasha Torsper, a 1st year 2nd grade teacher at Martin Luther King Elementary in Oakland, carried three big bags of books and a small whiteboard to her car. She uses the books to stock her classroom library and makes the free books an incentive for good classroom behavior. “I have a prize box with free books,” said Torsper.

Amitai Padilla, the parent and family liaison at Marina Vista Elementary School, in Pittsburg California, has been collecting books from the East Bay Children’s Project for a few months for a book exchange at her school. The book exchange program gathered enough books to launch this week. She made her own organized crates with the books categorized into the different grade levels. Children were encouraged to swap out the books they have already read for new ones. “This boy switched a book to one where could read to his brother,” she said.

Another teacher, Kris Ferguson, is a 7th grade teacher at Berkeley Manor Academy. She loaded 63 books into laundry bags. Thanks to her reoccurring visits, she was able to fill up her class library and assist other teachers in creating their own. “This is such a great free resource because teachers don’t make any money. It’s good to get free books,” said Ferguson. During her many trips to receive free books, she has also started taking book requests from the students in her class. “There are always really excited when they see the new bags come in,” she said.

Despite the success of the program, Katz was notified three months ago that the program had lost its lease. She is unsure why the church they are renting space from is discontinuing the lease. “I don’t have a clue, they didn’t give me any reason,” said Katz. “They sent me a letter in the mail saying they aren’t renewing the lease.”

Staffers at the church the program is renting from did not return phone calls seeking information on why the lease has been discontinued.

Katz and her volunteer staff have visited numerous locations and are currently searching for a new facility. “It’s a pain, but I am relentlessly optimistic that we will reopen in a new place with a whole heck of a bunch of books to give away,” said volunteer Kondrashova.

While the staff prepares to close, the community has been hauling to stock up on free books.  “I think it’s terrible. This is such a valuable asset,” said Sharf. “It needs to continue.” Sharp is a volunteer children’s librarian at Vincent Academy Public Charter School in West Oakland. She has been benefitting from the East Bay Children’s Book Program since 2012.

“We’re sad. We love coming over here. That’s how a lot of us have built our classroom libraries, so our kids can have the ability to read outside of class, in class and have a lot of different options to read,” said Anderegg.

The last day to receive free books before the program closes is Thursday, October 26. The program is open from 3 to 6 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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