Some not so obvious casualties of this COVID-19 pandemic are the auxiliary services previously provided to communities by nonprofit entities before our worlds were flipped upside down. Once a region has developed processes and procedures to support urgent needs for healthcare, housing, and the eradication of hunger, there exist many other services that are almost as vital and contribute to the squashing of America’s growing list of economic and ethnic disparities.

Since the educational landscape for most American children has temporarily changed, preventing slides in reading skills for pre-school, elementary and middle schoolers is imperative.  One of my colleagues is a literacy hero and it only took her a few days to reinvent ways that she could remain relevant and useful in her hometown community of Tampa Bay, Florida.

Bess the Book Bus (Bess) led by Founder Jennifer E. Frances is a one-of-a-kind mobile literacy outreach that distributed over 35,000 brand new books locally last year and reached 28,899 children who all had the opportunity to choose at least one new book they could take home to their family library. Nationally, Bess visited 83 towns in 22 states providing 57,041 books to 48,346 children and families. 2019 was Bess the Book Bus’ most successful year to date, and so it’s no wonder that Jennifer wants to keep up the momentum!

Since news of the pandemic canceled a cross country tour and took Bess’ tires off the road, Jennifer wanted to remain relevant and distribute books locally as she sheltered in place with her family. That meant that Jennifer had to pivot her programming and come up with some different ideas on how to get books into homes. Jenn reached out to her existing partners at Head Start and to local schools in both Hillsborough and Pinellas County. In this effort, she was matched with Tampa’s largest nonprofit tackling hunger-Feeding Tampa Bay, and developed a wonderful partnership where children and families will be offered free books when they visit one of Feeding Tampa Bay’s meal program locations and at Cleveland and Potter Elementary schools in Hillsborough and at Oak Grove Middle School in Pinellas County. Beginning this Monday, families in the Tampa Bay area will be able to procure lunch and literacy, at least three times a week, exhibiting a magnificent collaboration that totally makes sense and demonstrates one of my favorite quotes about reading by author William Nicholson, “We read to know we’re not alone.”

Every book and every box of books gets fully disinfected before it is delivered to the site. In addition to Bess’s new partnerships, Jennifer is also working with long time collaborators such as the Juvenile Detention Center in St. Petersburg and Layla’s House in Tampa. This week Bess will visit Tropicana Field, The Hillsborough County Community College campus in Ybor City and Woodbridge Elementary School in Tampa. You can follow along with Bess’s journey by visiting the Bess to Book Bus Facebook page at this link: https://www.facebook.com/bessthebookbus/

All boxes of books are sanitized before they go out to the public for distribution

Founder and Executive Director, Jennifer Frances as she makes visits to partner sites to drop off books.

Bess works with children whose situations make them the most in need of enrichment services, including their identified school weaknesses, home life, and current economic need. Since rolling out in 2003, Bess has provided approximately 800,000 books to children throughout Hillsborough County and beyond as part of its’ national reading tours. Bess stocks books for the youngest emerging readers, to teens, and preliterate adults. “We are building home libraries for children while building enthusiasm for the reading experience. There is nothing like being able to pick out your own brand-new book, open the cover, explore new worlds and gain a bridge to knowledge. We believe that access and choice are key to building lifelong readers, and our unique approach reaches budding readers where they are,” stated Jennifer, “It’s evolved into my life’s work and I am dedicated to continuing this journey.”

Note: Bess the Book Bus is not actively fundraising as frontline organizations and healthcare initiatives should be the priority, however, if you are interested in supporting the literacy efforts of Bess and Jennifer, this is the link to her website: http://bessthebookbus.org/contact-bess/

-grace alfiero

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