Elementary school student Isaris Ramos smiled as she sorted her bag of eight new books.
A fantasy novel, comic book and illustrated biography by Albert Einstein.
“I’ll read them all when I get home,” said Isaris, a sixth grader at Jahn Elementary School in Lake View.
Isaris was among a group of students chanting “We Want Books” as volunteers from the charity Bernie’s Book Bank distributed bags of free books on Thursday.
The volunteers were in the middle of their 20-mile Walk As One Chicago fundraiser from Guaranteed Rate Field to Wrigley Field and back. Along the way they stopped at schools to encourage book ownership and literacy.
They planned to return at nightfall to pitch the first pitch at the Sox game.
The annual event, now in its third year, grew out of a challenge ESPN Chicago host David Kaplan gave on the air after the pandemic began.
“I’ve been talking about how divided we are,” Kaplan said. Republicans versus Democrats, Sox versus Cubs. “And I hated it.”
Kaplan’s producer asked him to take a unit walk around town. “And I said that’s a great idea. I will walk 29 miles home from work.”
Looking for a worthy charity, Kaplan ended up at Bernie’s Book Bank.
He is still amazed to see children’s reactions to book gifts.
“A mother approached me. She cried. And I ask: ‘Are you okay?’ She says, ‘I don’t know what to say. I can’t buy books for my children. I have no money.’
“To see what this charity is doing, they are the heroes,” Kaplan said. “What they’re doing is bringing books to these little kids. Look at her. They are all excited to read.”
Jahn Elementary School principal Derrick Kimbrough said it was a “no-brainer” to host the book distribution for his students.
“As a lover of reading and a former literacy teacher, I always want to see books in the hands of my students,” Kimbrough said. The school at 3149 N. Wolcott Ave. has been organizing the giveaways since 2018.
Kimbrough hopes the children will be able to keep these books in their home library and perhaps pass them on to younger siblings “to continue a tradition that builds this legacy of reading.”
This sense of book ownership is a critical part of the charity’s mission, said Darrin Utynek, CEO of Bernie’s Book Bank.
“We want children to build their foundation for literacy on their own terms, which means that if they want to read at home, they should have access to books,” he said.
“We want to build a home library for them,” he said, noting that some library books are considered too valuable to borrow. “Eight books a year from birth through sixth grade, that’s when we really feel like we brought them on their journey.”
Bernie’s Book Bank has provided children with more than 22 million books since the charity was founded in Lake Forest in 2009. It serves children from preschool through sixth grade and distributes approximately 300,000 books annually to 900 schools in Chicago and the Collar Counties.
The idea was to create a “revolutionary children’s book bank model,” said founder Brian Floriani. Instead of giving a child a book, the non-profit organization builds relationships with schools and visits them several times a year, giving the children bags full of books.
Floriani, a professional golfer, named Bernie’s Book Bank after his father, who died unexpectedly in 2005. “It shook me to the core and took me from the golf business to a life of ministry,” Floriani told The Sun-Times in 2013.
After receiving their books on Thursday, the children sat on the school steps near the playground and shared among themselves the new additions to their personal libraries.
Essence Durr was the most excited about their new installment of Shannon and Dean Hale’s The Legend of Shadow High. Essence, a sixth grader, loves to read in her free time and dedicates at least 30 minutes a day to reading.
Amaya Gonzalez, another sixth grader, said, “I’m very excited to get some books that I’d like to read. I will definitely read them.”