Nov. 12

How Two Moms Are Pulling Kids Off a Dangerous Slide

Sandra Ahlhorn and Amy Barnes, longtime friends and mothers of school-age kids, were disturbed to learn last year that children from low-income families in their city of Houston suffer a “summer slide.” During the school break, the kids start forgetting what they had learned during the school year – often because they don’t have books at home to read.

Sandra Ahlhorn and Amy Barnes

Over time, such setbacks can lead to vast achievement gaps between children from lower- and higher-income families.

Ahlhorn and Barnes, who had long been active volunteers at their kids’ schools, joined together to found Books Between Kids, hoping initially just to make a small difference by holding book drives and soliciting book donations through social media.

“We just wanted to help,” says Ahlhorn. “I was raised in a reading environment, and so were my kids. It was painful for me to realize that in so many homes, books are a luxury that parents simply can’t afford. And studies clearly show that the absence of home reading leads to lower test scores and impacts how long a child will stay in school.”

Today in Houston, Points of Light Chairman Neil Bush and his mother, former First Lady Barbara Bush, awarded Ahlhorn and Barnes with the Daily Point of Light Award for their commitment to child literacy. President George H. W. Bush showed up to congratulate them. The recognition is part of the One America tour, which aims to bring together powerful voices to discuss the critical issues of our time and unite people in volunteer service.

one_america_houston_with_bushes.jpgSandra Ahlhorn (far left) and Amy Barnes (far right) display their Daily Point of Light Award with President George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush.

When Ahlhorn and Barnes started out, the two decided to target prekindergarten and elementary school children. Their first goal was to collect enough gently used books to help kids at six local schools.

Barnes asked for donations from Better World Books, an online business that sells used books. The socially responsible company has raised more than $15 million for literacy and distributed millions of free books to charities worldwide. Better World Books responded in a way that stunned Barnes and Ahlhorn: It gave Books Between Kids 70,000 books, delivered by an 18-wheeler.

“Better World Books changed everything,” says Barnes. “Suddenly, we were looking at helping 20-plus schools instead of six, and we needed volunteers simply to deal with the volume. But by using social media outreach, we were able to recruit more than a 100 volunteers pretty quickly.”

Ahlhorn, Barnes and their team set about the months-long task of unpacking books, vetting and sorting them, and repacking them for delivery to schools. Over the course of the school year, 30,000 additional books were donated through local drives.

“The community deserves great credit as well,” says Barnes. “We received many books because of the involvement of Scout troops and other organizations. One youngster gathered 170 books on his own.”

“Kids played a big part in getting local book donations, and that is fundamental,” adds Ahlhorn. “When we started Books Between Kids, we wanted kids to learn more about helping the community by participating: kids giving to kids.”

In May, Books Between Kids delivered books to 22 Houston schools, where they were distributed to students just before summer break.

“Many of the schools held events when they gave out the books,” says Barnes. “It was lovely to hear from principals and parents. They told us the children were very excited and couldn’t believe that they got to take six books home with them.”

Better World Books has agreed to send two truckloads of books to Books Between Kids this school year and for the next two years.

“We’re poised to grow,” says Ahlhorn. “This is a huge school district, and 90,000 kids qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. That’s how many kids we’d like to reach. We don’t want to force ourselves to grow too quickly, but so far we’ve accomplished things we never planned.”

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