A group of masked kids hold books up in front of shelves lined with more books.
Children’s Book Bank celebrates over one million books donated and looks to the future with an exciting new merger.

Late last year Serenity White, a pre-K student who attends Portland Public Schools Kelly Head Start, came into the northeast Portland warehouse of the Children’s Book Bank to collect one very special book. White and her family walked in, greeted by the familiar sight of book-laden walls and masked volunteers, and walked out with the organization’s one millionth donated book. This milestone represents thousands of hours of labor put in by the organization’s donors, volunteers and community partners and illustrates the long-lasting and resounding impact that Children’s Book Bank has had on our community since its inception in 2008. Serenity’s brother had received book bundles from the Bank years before, kickstarting a families’ love of reading and learning. And the impact didn’t stop there! In addition to receiving the organization’s millionth donated book, Serenity’s entire class was donated a library of new books thanks to Children’s Book Bank’s corporate partner Umpqua Bank.

“I think that’s one of the things that draws so many people to volunteer here,” said Brittany Brock, Volunteer Manager at Children’s Book Bank. “Seeing the joy you can bring, knowing the impact reading can have. Especially when you start reading young, the independence it can build in a child really seems to come back and our volunteers so often are reminded of that. They get back into that mentality when they are cleaning or repairing a book at the warehouse.”

Brock is integral to operations at Children’s Book Bank, as are the many volunteers that have helped the organization reach this massive milestone, many of whom have found their way to volunteering there through United Way of the Columbia-Willamette’s partner program Hands on Greater Portland.

Especially when you start reading young, the independence it can build in a child really seems to come back and our volunteers so often are reminded of that. They get back into that mentality when they are cleaning or repairing a book at the warehouse.

“To think of all the people involved, it’s crazy,” Brock said.

With over 64,040 books distributed to 7,660 kids since July 2021, the need for volunteers is always there. The organization hosts two to four sessions a week, inviting groups and individuals to come into the warehouse to clean, repair and package book bundles that go out directly to their partners. They work alongside teachers and parents to provide inclusive, tailored bundles that allow kids to peer into the lifestyles and experiences of others as well as gives them recognizable characters they can look up to and see themselves in. This concept of “Mirrors and Windows” was initially introduced by Emily Style and recognizes the importance of inclusive learning materials. A mirror is a story that reflects your own culture and helps you build your identity. A window is a resource that offers you a view into someone else’s.

“Seeing yourself in a book affirms your identity, your possibilities. It’s important for kids to see themselves and their families positively reflected in what they read. It can be marginalizing to always see fully able, cis, white people in your books, which is so much the norm. And for kids of that dominant culture, seeing stories of different identities that they may not see often can build empathy. It makes the world a better place and can make them realize everyone has adventures and stories to tell.”

Seeing yourself in a book affirms your identity, your possibilities.

This emphasis on inclusive learning materials stems from a deeper understanding of what children need to thrive. Books are integral to that flourishing, as research has shown time and time again. Two-thirds of low-income children own no books at home, as parents struggle to provide basic needs and can’t afford to buy new books. They are missing the critical at-home reading time that increases their chances for success in kindergarten and beyond and starting behind in these earliest years makes it exponentially more difficult to catch up. The Children’s Book Bank aims to fill this gap by partnering with local children’s programs like Head Start preschools to provide book bundles for every child to take home.

“Family engagement is something we work toward and strive for,” Brock said. “Children really need something to read and engage with, but often time it’s even more important to have someone to read and engage with. We see so much bonding happening with these book bundles. 97 percent of families report talking more and engaging more when these bundles arrive.”

But Children’s Book Bank is far from finished making a huge impact on our region. The organization is currently working toward yet another massive milestone and seeking to expand its operations and offerings into a whole new venture.

Children’s Book Bank is officially merging with another Portland organization: SMART Reading. SMART Reading pairs qualified volunteers with children to read one-on-one every week throughout the school year, modeling and instilling a love of reading in a child-guided environment. This natural merger combines the shared impact of access to books and access to an adult to engage in reading with, two strong predictors of early learning and literacy success. SMART Reading and Children’s Book Bank have been exploring this merger for over a year and will combine forces this year with the hopes of implementing shared programing in 2023.

Children need something to read and engage with, but often times it’s more important to have someone to read and engage with. We see so much bonding happening with these book bundles.

“We have so many success stories here,” Brock concluded. “We had a great fundraiser to celebrate the merger and raised past our goals.”

One other thing the merger is sure to bring is the need for even more volunteers! So be sure to keep an eye on Hands on Greater Portland’s Project Calendar and join a volunteer session at Children’s Book Bank to repair, clean and bundle books, or (soon!) volunteer with the newly merged organization to read one-on-one with a child in our region.