Lisa Heyison is the one-woman force behind Read While U Wait, an initiative to provide books to children and families waiting to be placed in Boston’s family shelters. I spoke with her about how she became “the book lady”… and her vision for the future.
Tell me about your program a little bit. How did you get started?
So I have Read While U Wait, which has been around for about 12 years. I bring all my books to the Roxbury Department of Transitional Assistance and the DHCD, Department of Housing and Community Development, which is for people who are being placed in family shelters. (The DHCD used to be part of the DTA and they had to separate it a couple of years ago.) There are anywhere from—it’s going to sound like a high number—anywhere from 300 to 1,000 families a day that go through there. If you’re going to a family shelter, your whole family has to be there. So the kids may have to sit there for 3-6 hours or longer. They miss school, but they have to be there to be placed. If you go on a Monday or a Tuesday or right after a holiday, it’s stifling. The case workers are great, but it’s tough.
When I was a volunteer at Horizons, one of the shelters had all these books jammed in drawers. It drove me crazy, so I asked if I could set up a library. Since it used to be a hospital I asked if they would let me have an old nursing station. That’s when somebody connected me with Read Boston. They got funding from the city… Mayor Menino wanted a program started for literacy for kids and families in shelters. There wasn’t really any prototype for this though. So somebody heard about my program and they asked if I would come to ReadBoston as a volunteer to duplicate it. Eventually we expanded to 26 family shelters. But because there is such limited staff, I became the person who ran it. So it was wonderful and we did workshops with the moms, the dads, volunteers, the staff—we cleaned out libraries full of bad donations and developed new ones for these places. It was called Families and Books.
And while I was there somebody from the DTA asked me to help them to start a reading room. So I teamed up with them, Horizons for Homeless Children, and Mass Literacy Coalition, and after five or six years we managed to get a room. They have since closed that room because they needed to put food stamp machines in it. So it lasted for a couple of years, but after I left ReadBoston I continued to supply the DTA with books.
What’s your relationship to Reader to Reader (a charity dedicated to supplying books and computers to communities in need)?
So I was doing it all on my own, and then last year I spoke to a state rep about becoming a nonprofit. Actually, it’s funny because I was on a train with him and the train broke down, so we started talking about a friend of his named David Mazzer, who started Reader to Reader. Eventually I met David and we teamed up so that I didn’t have to become a nonprofit. Reader to Reader helps to support me by writing grants and getting me the more difficult books to get… I don’t get a lot of Spanish books donated, and I don’t get enough board books donated. I’m always in desperate need of those, so Reader to Reader tends to use its funds for that. They’ll siphon off some of the adult donations that they receive also, including cookbooks. A couple of years ago I had a few kids who needed to do community service and they were sorting all the books we were collecting and they said we should get rid of the cookbooks. And I told them they’d be surprised, because people are sitting in those waiting rooms and they do cook.
Anyhow, that’s how we became part of Reader to Reader. They have a huge national program that helps people to get the books they need, though they don’t do a lot of shelter work. They tend to supply disadvantaged schools, libraries, communities—like after Katrina they went in and were giving books out to everybody. Whenever there’s a natural disaster and they know that books probably got destroyed, they go in, they organize, and they distribute books. It’s amazing. Also, their donors… Carly Simon is a big one. She wrote a book, so sometimes they get her surplus. There are quite a few famous people, some authors, who are generous to Reader to Reader. It’s a very eclectic group that gives to them.
Do you partner up with retailers or wholesalers at all?
Working with other organizations can be very tricky. Birthday Wishes is an amazing organization that can sometimes give me books.
Really, it’s mostly kids setting up book drives for community service hours, or local stores like PSB who will give me donations. If I hear about a used book sale I’ll try to get there, but I also work full time—I’m a social worker at the Somerville Council on Aging. I don’t get paid for the book work I do, I never have actually, not in all my years with Read Boston either. I love to read and I’m fortunate that I can volunteer.
Earlier, you mentioned “bad donations.” What do you mean by that?
Encyclopedia sets! People aren’t looking at them! Most shelters will at least have access to a computer for kids to do homework, so those kids are not going to use outdated encyclopedias for their assignments. So it’s stuff like that, or old textbooks, old travel books, no one is using those.
I’m surprised you don’t get many board books. I don’t feel like people would keep those for posterity.
Kids chew on them. I mean, which is the purpose of them, but we want books to be in good condition. Sometimes we get donated ones that are in good shape, but mostly they’re chewed up. I’m always concerned with germs too. Board books are best incredibly gently used or new. So a lot of times when people ask if they can do a book drive, I will have them focus on new board books.
What else do you need?
Children’s books, literally from birth through high school. Picture books, the I-can-read type books…oh my gosh I go through so many of those so quickly. Because we also use them for the parents. When I was at Read Boston I would do workshops on how people can use those books to improve their reading skills. For example, we’d teach the 5 finger method, which helps you learn whether a book is too hard or too easy (if there are five words on the page that you can’t read, it’s too hard, so go back a level). They’re kid books, but that’s ok. People need to know that it’s ok to take a chance and read anything that will help them learn. And picture books are great for those who don’t speak English so well. We have them create their own story to go with the pictures.
So there are many different ways that we use children’s books but they’re some of the hardest books to get because people don’t want to give them up. They think that they’re going to save them for their grandchildren. It’s funny, because I have books from when I was a kid and there’s only one that I still look at, since the rest of them will fall apart if I open the pages. It would have been better if I’d just given them to someone else. We also tell people: When you give a book to somebody as a gift, don’t always inscribe it. Often the child will read it a couple of times and then move on. So it’s almost new, and if they bring it to a book drive, we can give another kid a book that’s almost new and that doesn’t have anybody else’s name on it, a book that becomes their own.
The kids I work with don’t have books. When they come into family housing, they come in with a garbage bag. And if you’re going to carry all your stuff, you’re not going to bring books. And they don’t. Because books are heavy, and the mom’s the one who’s carrying everything because the kids are little. So when they come and they see us with the books—like when I dropped off the boxes the other day—the kids stop and stare. I tell them to take some. And they are so hesitant to take more than one. Like, “Really? Can I take it… can I keep it?” They’ve never had a book. I mean, you can have 7 or 8 year olds who have never owned one.
All these kids who are living in the shelters are stressed out, they struggle to get to school on time, their grade level is so erratic because they’ve moved too much. Even their parents sometimes don’t know what to do with a book. Nobody educated them on how to educate their child. There was no model. It’s not that they’re bad parents, they’re not! It’s just that no one ever modeled certain things for them. There’s a whole educational component. Are you reading to your child? Are you counting, doing colors? If we don’t emphasize these things for the parents, when the kids get to preschool or kindergarten, parents expect the teacher to do it all. And that’s the other big obstacle: to get people to take a chance. To just take the books. Sometimes when I’m there I’ll just walk around to kids that are crying and stick a book in their hands, and they’ll stop.
What do your volunteers do?
Usually it’s only me. I have to admit, I usually get volunteers when kids either need to do community service, or they got in trouble, and they get into community service that way. I am probably the only person who liked it when pot was criminal because I used to get enough kids… I actually had a whole little program with a file on my computer with the forms you need, the hours you have to complete, the whole setup.
If someone offered to volunteer for a few hours, or a few times a week, how could they help you out?
I would actually have them mobilize other volunteers and help me figure out ways to expand the program. I don’t know how to expand this, exactly. I’ve have people express interest, but I don’t have the time or energy to do it all: reach out to more bookstores and libraries for advanced copies, find information about used book sales, get a list together of sources that accept donations or are donating. I would love to have somebody help me figure out all those things! I’d love to have someone help out with pickups or deliveries, or someone to talk to elementary schools and middle schools… if every kid, especially in some of the communities with healthier incomes, if every kid took the books that they are done reading or that they have never opened up and brought them to a book drive, that would be amazing. There are just so many books sitting in homes… books that we can use…and I don’t always know how to open those channels. I really am lousy at that. It’s very difficult doing this mostly alone, but I mean, it’s worth it when I look at the kids and the staff and they’re just so excited. I drive up and they all know me as the book lady.
What’s your vision?
I want more books! I want more crayons, coloring books, workbooks, paper, stickers. I want people making little bags so the shelter staff can give out goodie bags full of stories and fun art stuff. These kids don’t have that. They get three crayons to work with. For that reason I just buy crayons whenever I see them on sale. I want to get bigger and better but I also want someone else to help me get it there.