In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the Brazos Valley, Books from Birth began in Robertson County.
“It was a bad time and a great time to be starting,” Rebecca Villarreal, director of the new nonprofit, said. “With COVID, there were a lot of kids who were stuck at home.”
The area nonprofit provides books to children ages 5 and under through healthcare clinics, elementary schools, little libraries and, most recently, the Salvation Army. Specifically, the organization is focused on reaching communities with at least a 70% economically disadvantaged population.
The organization began its work in Robertson County and Hearne, but has expanded into Calvert and Mumford and Brazos County through the Salvation Army. In 2022, Villarreal said, she hopes to begin partnering with HealthPoint clinics in Bryan, College Station and Rockdale.
In 2020, Villarreal said, Books from Birth handed out more than 1,000 books. In 2021, that number has increased tenfold, with 10,000 books being distributed to about 3,500 children. In 2022, she anticipates that number growing to 20,000 books to 5,500 children.
Villarreal said it was difficult during that first year, especially with the pandemic, to make the connections and establish the partnerships, but she knew there was an important need to be filled.
Villarreal and her family moved to Hearne about six years ago, and her husband works as a teacher and a coach in the Mumford school district.
“It is very clear the disparity between the opportunity the kids at Mumford have and the kids at Hearne,” she said. “I started doing a lot of research into schools and education and what can make a difference for kids who come from impoverished backgrounds and historically have not had as much academic success as their more affluent peers.”
The idea of helping children get books was something she felt she could tackle.
Villarreal researched the Reach Out and Read and Imagination Library programs to see if she could do anything with them, but said she found her community needed something different. After about a year of research into both programs, she took some of the ideas they used and the research they cited to create Books from Birth.
One major difference, she said, is no child or family has to opt into the program.
Children at healthcare clinics in Hearne that have at least 70% of their patient population on federal insurance – CHIP, Medicare or Medicaid – receive five books at their well visits. Students at Hearne, Calvert and Mumford elementary schools pick out two books to take home every May for the summer. Then, this holiday season, the organization partnered with the Salvation Army to provide a book to all children who were part of the Angel Tree program.
The nonprofit also stocks two little libraries at Hearne grocery stores.
With donations from Target and monetary donations from supporters to purchase discounted children’s books, Villarreal said she tries to make sure the books children picked at the Salvation Army Angel Tree this week and the ones they select at the clinics and schools are new.
“We try to be really thoughtful about the books we buy being age appropriate and just having a high readability for parents, who are going to be reading this book a thousand times with their kids,” she said.
The little libraries, however, are stocked with used books and about 100 books from there go into children’s homes each week.
The organization receives donations from Half Price Books, but also relies on donated used books.
Through Christmas, Books from Birth is hosting a book drive to collect books to keep the little libraries filled and supplement the other book distributions, if needed. After Christmas, people can continue to donate money through the organization’s website or by donating books.
Villarreal saw for herself how grateful parents were at the Hearne Christmas Market this month and heard from teachers about the importance of the books, noting some told her how they had kindergarteners who did not know the alphabet.
“I’m not delusional thinking this one thing is going to fix all the problems, but I think this is a really important gap step,” she said. “There’s just so much learning that happens in that 0-3 age and brain development that happens. Kids don’t start Head Start until at least 3 or 4, so we have to have some things at home.”
The organization also fills the gap between families who receive a book through the United Way of the Brazos Valley’s Baby Bundle program for new parents and students who get a book at school through Books and a Blanket.
In addition to the academic benefit of getting children books at a young age, Villarreal said she hopes parents see an impact at home when they read to their children.
“I definitely do hope that these books boost kids on their path to literacy and to academic success, but there’s also another aspect that we don’t talk about as much that I think is just as important,” she said. “They say that parent-child bonding is increased a lot by having books at home and having that time to snuggle up and read a book. Parent-child bonding is a huge marker for people’s social determinant later in life, there’s social success.”
For more information and to donate to Books from Birth, go to booksfrombirthtx.org. People can contact Villarreal at 979-488-9192 or email@example.com. Books can be donated to Villarreal or at Morningstar Storage at 10099 SH30 in College Station.