The Oak Park Public Library has kicked off its “Books Empower” initiative, a new grant-funded initiative to distribute new and unused books to those most in need while strengthening partnerships across the community and also supporting small business.

 “It’s one of those rare situations where it’s honestly win-win-win,” said Jason Smith, co-owner of independent bookstore The Book Table, the program’s book supplier.

The logistics of “Books Empower” are fairly simple: The library purchases the books through the Book Table, 1045 Lake St., using $25,000 in grant money from the Illinois State Library. The books are then delivered to the non-profit organizations New Moms and the Oak Park River Forest Infant Welfare Society (IWS). New Moms and IWS then distribute the books among those who utilize their services.

“In order to make it as safe as possible and to try to limit the number of hands exchanging all the books along the way, we decided we would partner with local community organizations who are already reaching our target audience,” said Sarah Yale, the library’s community engagement manager.

Yale called New Moms and IWS a “natural fit” for the program because the library has partnered with both organizations in the past.

The library chooses which books to purchase based on feedback provided by New Moms and IWS. The list of books is then shared with the Book Table, where Smith checks the titles’ availability and processes the order.

“We are working exclusively with the Book Table,” said Sarah Yale, the library’s community engagement manager. “We wanted to support our local independent bookseller.”

An estimated 600 books have been purchased so far. Unlike borrowing library books, “Books Empower” allows recipients to keep the books they receive to help them build their home libraries. New Moms is even incorporating the books into their programming, according to Yale.

“What we’re hearing from some of their staff is that they’re using the books we’ve sent them to engage their families in deeper conversations,” said Yale. “It’s really rewarding for us to hear that.”

The program is also rewarding for New Moms and the families the organization supports, according to Gail Shelton, New Moms director of family support.

“This donation will help our staff continue to walk alongside families as they build and foster a reading culture at home,” Shelton told Wednesday Journal. “The moms and children are thrilled to add such high-quality and diverse books to their home libraries, with stories featuring families just like them.”

The initiative has also enabled IWS to continue its tradition of giving books to the children who come into the health clinic for medical and dental appointments. In the past, IWS gave away many used books donated to the organization.

“Because of the pandemic, they’re only able to give out new books,” said Yale. “And they had a very limited supply of new books.”

Through “Books Empower,” IWS has a supply of new and completely unused books to give their patients.

“Having our local library support this program is absolutely wonderful!” said IWS Executive Director Peggy LaFleur. “More than ever children need an escape and reading a good story is one of the best ways of doing so.”

The new books also open opportunities for conversations regarding concerns expressed during patient visits, for instance, children dealing with anxiety or a lack of socialization due to COVID-19.

Another rewarding aspect of the “Books Empower” initiative, according to Yale, is the ability to invest in The Book Table, a local business. The economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic has hit businesses of all kinds very hard, especially smaller, mom-and-pop shops.

“As a library, we care about our local business owners; we want their stories to be heard so people understand what’s going on right now,” said Yale.

Partnering with The Book Table to make this program happen, she said, has been a “wonderful experience.”

The “Books Empower” initiative has only been in operation for a few months, but the library is already looking to expand its reach to benefit more community organizations in the Oak Park area, according to Yale.

“That’s our goal always – to support the other good work that is already happening in the community.”

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