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Beginning in 2022, you’re going to see a lot of new exciting, focused areas of support from us. One of those is our focused area of childhood literacy. The lack of literacy is one of the major issues that plague our society, over and over in the data, many of our issues circle back to literacy.

 We asked our friends at StoryBridge to share some thoughts about their program as a guest blogger with us.  If you don’t know what they are doing to increase access to books by children in our area, please take time to read this blog and learn why we are proud to support them in their efforts. Below is the blog they shared with us.  If you would like to learn more about our education initiative and work check out: www.amarilloareafoundation.org/education

A few days later the lion was caught in a hunter’s snare. Struggle as he might, he couldn’t break free and became even more entangled in the net of ropes. He let out a roar of anger that shook the forest. Every animal heard it, including the tiny mouse…

The important thing about a story is… it lives forever in your mind. Your brain grows and changes as you learn and experiences mold and shape you, but stories oft-repeated – somehow, somewhere – remain intact. Sometimes a new experience seems to touch an old story, one that has lived in your brain for decades.

Who knows how long Aesop’s classic fable, The Lion and the Mouse, has lain dormant in my head. But in this liminal space preceding the New Year, as I reflect on the work at Storybridge, I keep thinking about that little mouse.

Late January 2021

I was at a hotel in Houston when I received a phone call from a relatively new acquaintance, Jim Whitton. He was part of a group from St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church that Storybridge partnered with for a special book gift. He shared his intention to provide initial funding to launch Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for all the children in Potter and Randall Counties. I think I actually felt my brain shoot dopamine through my whole body as I knew immediately the value of this program for our kids! For 4 years, Storybridge had been serving Title 1 elementary schools with free book fairs. For 2 years, we had been planting Little Free Libraries in low-income neighborhoods. For 1 year, we had been providing 1 new book for every baby born at Northwest Hospital. These programs were the best we could do to solve the problem of inadequate access to books for thousands of our kids. But there had always been a throbbing gap in our ability to provide books when it’s most crucial for kids to be read to – birth to 5. This demographic is notoriously hard to reach because the majority of them are not in organized child care and, until they are enrolled in school, trying to communicate en masse and gather them with one program is like, well, trying to contain mice with a chain-link fence.

But… Imagination Library would solve it!

Jim Whitton with Imagination Library founder, Dolly Parton.

I couldn’t help but pace the room as Jim and I talked further about the specifics of the program and how it could work in Amarillo. Parents could enroll their birth – 5 children to receive a brand new, age-appropriate book straight to their mailbox every month, at no charge to their family – no matter what neighborhood of Potter or Randall County they live in, no matter their income level! The shipping and database services are provided by the Dollywood Foundation, and the cost of the books is paid by the local nonprofit organization. The average cost of each book is just over $2, so the local organization ends up paying about $25/year for each child enrolled in their area. A newborn could have a collection of 60 books by their 5th birthday. My imagination was on fire.

And then Jim said, “What do you think about approaching [a Giant Local Institution] to be the local nonprofit to manage this in Amarillo?”

My mind came to a screeching halt and his question echoed in my head. The dopamine surge suddenly felt like weights pulling me back to the ground. I couldn’t respond, and my silence was surely a sudden shift from my earlier excitement.

I said finally, “Oh. I think… I assumed we were both thinking Storybridge could do it.”

Jim responded, “Oh, really? It’s such a big undertaking…” He explained his thinking. What he was saying made complete sense, especially considering his limited knowledge of the history and scope of Storybridge. I knew what my gut was telling me, but guts are not always where the wisdom is. I needed time to process. I asked if I could think about our conversation and reach out again when I got back home to Amarillo.

I took several days to consider the issue… I mean, we were talking about a program that could eventually serve between 10 and 15 THOUSAND local kids. That’s huge! That many books in the mail every month is 5 times the amount of books we normally distribute. That’s huge! At full capacity, this program would add another $250,000 to our annual budget, more than doubling our current operations. That’s huge! Lionish.

All considered, Storybridge started to seem very small in comparison. Mousy, even.

The pushback I heard in my own head:

An excited little reader!
  • You think your staff – of 1 – is up to adding a program like that?
  • You struggle with fundraising as it is. Where’s the money going to come from when you double your budget?
  • You don’t even own your own building yet.
  • You’ve been in nonprofit work for 4 years. Sit down. You’re a baby.

Brutal. I was ready to give in to that voice and acquiesce to letting someone bigger and stronger step in. I thought about the huge problem we’re trying to solve. The one that wakes me up at night. All of the children going to Kindergarten not having owned any of their own books. The struggle for them to learn to read and keep up with ever-higher expectations. The effect on their self-esteem. The overwhelming odds of them being able to reach their full potential, to be what they really want to be in the world. I saw faces of kids in my classrooms that struggled for this reason. I could see their smiles and feel their hugs.

My eyes welled and I looked up to keep the tears from falling. Right then, looking at the ceiling, I heard a different voice: “This is your job.”

I took a deep breath, pulled my eyes forward. I will always feel the pain of this problem. Is it possible that I should just… try?

Isn’t trying and failing better than not trying anything at all? I decided to trust my calling. I composed a letter to Jim that boldly proclaimed that, in fact, no organization would be better suited to take on and manage Imagination Library than Storybridge and outlined 6 reasons why.

I emailed the letter on February 2. Two days later, Jim came to tour Storybridge for the first time in person and learn more about our organization. He sat down in my office and smiled. He loved my letter. He said, “I can’t imagine anyone with more fight in them to solve this problem. Let’s do it.”

‘My friend the lion is in trouble!’ cried the mouse. He ran as fast as he could in the direction of the lion’s roar, and soon found the lion trapped in the hunter’s snare. ‘Hold still, Your Majesty,’ squeaked the mouse. ‘I’ll have you out of there in a jiffy!’

A neighborhood little library.

In February, we signed the contract with Dollywood Foundation and had money in the bank for the first 1,000 children for 1 year. Jim volunteered enthusiastically to help secure funding for more kids to have books for more years and established the Founders Circle, a still growing group of philanthropists committed to higher levels of funding over 3 years to sustain Imagination Library in our area.

In March, we had enrolled our first 40 local children. In April, we enrolled the next 800.

By September, Storybridge was serving over 2,000 children in Imagination Library, making us the largest Imagination Library affiliate in Texas. IN TEXAS!! At the end of 2021, we are providing books for 2,850 birth-5 children every month. 14,346 books have been mailed to our kids this year.

Also in 2021…

  • We kept bringing Free Book Fairs to Title 1 schools, over 25,000 books self-selected
  • We installed 9 more Little Free Libraries, and restock all 24 weekly
  • We kept the hospital stocked with books for every baby – 2,000/year
  • We dreamed up and pulled off our first big fundraiser – Storybridge LIVE! at Hodgetown
  • We launched a $423,500 capital campaign to purchase a building, and are 92% funded! Stay tuned for the 2022 Grand Opening!

For us at Storybridge – our Board of Directors, our Volunteers, our Event Team, our Donors – it is truly baffling to look back on 2021 and realize all we’ve accomplished as a team. Of course, I can see obvious advantages to being a Very Large Organization, and we certainly have the heart of a Lion inside of us. But for now, I’m grateful – for being small enough to be truly known, fast enough to change before it’s too late, and agile enough to avoid those pesky traps.

“And without further delay, the mouse began nibbling through the ropes with his sharp little teeth. Very soon the lion was free.”

To learn more about StoryBridge, head to their website: www.storybridgeama.org

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