Free book organization gives every child a chance to read

Feb. 19—ROCHESTER — The mission of The Free Book Buggie is simple: get books in the hands of kids.

The Twin Cities-based nonprofit, which started in 2018, has done just that. In its first four years, over 260,000 books were given to kids. It started as a passion project for founder and executive director Debbie Beck, whose effort to get kids reading started with leading an "I love to read" monthlong program at her kids' elementary school.

Then, in 2018, Beck was on a road trip with her daughter through Brazil. They stopped in a small coastal town south of Rio de Janeiro. While walking through a park, Beck saw a van filled to the brim with books and more spread out over a table.

"I grabbed her arm and I said, 'I know what I'm doing when I get home,'" Beck said. "It was that fast."

Four and a half years later, the nonprofit has its first satellite location at Sunset Terrace Elementary School in Rochester.

Lisa Levi and Maria Quelle visited the book buggie frequently in the cities, especially at the start of COVID-19. The idea was to get books into the hands of kids the two educators knew didn't have easy access to books.

"I'd pick out (books) with certain kids and students in mind and take them to their home so that during COVID, I knew that they had books to read," Levi said. "Every time I went, I thought, 'We need this in Rochester.'"

The original organization is set up inside a classroom at Burnsville High School, so it didn't seem like a stretch to find a classroom in Rochester to act as the book storage room. Sunset Terrace, where Levi is a reading specialist, offered up a classroom space. Beck, Levi, Quelle and other volunteers filled that room with books Saturday, Feb. 11.

"This (nonprofit) reaching this far, at this point, at this juncture just lights me up," Beck said.

The free book concept is an extension of Levi's bookshelf in her room where kids choose books to keep at home. Giving kids the choice of books is a way to ensure they find a book they'll love to read. This organization also gives kids books of their own, which is especially important for those without a stocked bookshelf at home.

"I've had it happen many times where a child will come up and she said, 'Can I keep this book?' I said, 'Absolutely, you can.' And she says this is her fourth book," Beck said. "Which, on the one hand, makes you want to cry. On the flip side, immediately, I'm like that's why we do this. When I hear that, I know that we're doing the right thing."

Eventually, Rochester volunteers will bring The Free Book Buggie to community events where a table will be filled with books for babies to high schoolers.

"Children need to read," Beck said, "because otherwise they're not going to advance and have a future that's going to be successful for them, or for the community at large."