Celebrating National Volunteer Month 2012

Everyone reading this article likely takes for granted that they in fact can read this, the morning’s newspaper, traffic signs and warnings, birthday cards, and all other matter of wordy articles.  However, the fact remains that in Chicago alone 53% of the adult population has low or limited literacy skills and 61% of low-income households across the country do not have a single children’s book at home.

April being National Volunteer Month, highlighting the significant work Open Books Ltd. (which operates with an almost exclusively volunteer workforce) does in combating illiteracy in Chicagoland seems appropriate.  Open Books can claim more than 3,000 current volunteers – with an average of 60 new participants added each month.

Open Books began in May of 2006, when founder Stacy Ratner envisioned a used bookstore that would use its proceeds to fund various creative and unique literacy programs.  That September, Open Books already had acquired 10,000 books and by June the IRS had certified Open Books as an official 501(c)(3) charity.  In 2007, beginning with an elementary school in Cabrini-Green, Open Books reached out with its first two literacy programs – the Buddies and Creative Writing Field Trips described below.  By 2009, the original vision of a flagship store was realized and a 50,000-tome storefront (with many more in storage, available to be ordered online) with a three-classroom literacy center attached was opened to the public.  Open Books has continued to expand – collecting, selling and giving away more books, recruiting more volunteers, and ultimately expanding the population of students served.

Volunteer participation can take place at Open Books’ storefront – a used bookstore that relies on donations (collection bins are located on West Webster and West Institute Plaza and Open Books also offers free pickup service in the city), sells its wares to fund the literacy programs, and also gives away five percent of its collected donations to students, schools, and community organizations (such as shelters and clinics) in response to book grant requests.

For a more hands-on approach, volunteers who enjoy working with children and young adults can sign up for any or all of the four unique experiences: Open Books Buddies, Adventures in Creative Writing, VWrite, or ReadThenWrite.  Respectively, these programs entail: one-on-one reading with elementary school students, participation in creative nonfiction field trip writing workshops for 3rd-12th graders, one-on-one “virtual” mentoring for high-school juniors in professional writing, and participation in a reading/writing/publishing experience for teenage authors.

The beauty of volunteering at Open Books is that all one needs bring is a love of reading and commitment to the cause – no experience teaching/English degree necessary!  Simply fill out the sign-up form and the wonderfully friendly and efficient volunteer manager, Ms. Ava Zeligson, will contact you with the date and time of the next open orientation (also listed on the main webpage).  There will be no questions about the symbolism of the color white in Moby Dick or the gender politics inherent in Howard’s End.  Rather, Open Books freely follows B.F. Skinner’s philosophy: “We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.”


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