Franklin Taylor, an Oak Park native and Fenwick alumnus, founded the nonprofit Our Future Reads to boost reading for area adults and families. (Photo Submitted)

In just a year, Franklin Taylor’s newly launched nonprofit Our Future Reads has collected more than 10,000 books and distributed them to dozens of organizations across his hometown of Oak Park and Chicagoland, reaching over 1,000 people. It’s a tremendous feat – a mission carefully crafted with compassion and care.

So, how did this all come together?

The 25-year-old Fenwick alumnus said he had an idea.

About two years ago, after Taylor graduated from Bowdoin College in Maine, he, like most people his age, found himself walking into a new stage of his life. The onset of the COVID pandemic had derailed his plans to travel to Germany where he would teach English to young students as part of a Fulbright program. Taylor was in transition, looking for work and biding his time.

Taylor, who later scored a job as a data analyst for a Chicago-based healthcare equipment company, said one day while working from home, he looked around his room and realized he was surrounded by pieces of his old life. No longer a college student, Taylor saw his books – some he loved and others he outgrew – piled all over, and he was ready to let them go.

“What do I do with them?” Taylor told Wednesday Journal over Zoom. “I’m not going to throw them out. Who throws out books?”

He went online, trying to find different book drives and places to donate, but instead was greeted by an unexpected challenge.

“It seemed like all the nonprofits in the area had these programs for children’s books, so they would take in children’s books [and] give them out to the schools and organizations in the area,” Taylor said, noting most of his books were meant for adults.

Brian Heuss, a Fenwick alumnus, serves as vice president of Our Future Reads and helps promote the nonprofit’s efforts to provide access to reading for area adults and families. | Submitted

“I needed a way to figure out how to get the books to adult readers,” he said.

From there, Taylor began thinking and ultimately decided to create Our Future Reads as a way to close the gap and meet the needs of adult readers, as well as children and teens. The goal, he said, is to create a “personalized library” for recipients based on books of interest. Taylor said he connected with various local nonprofits and asked directors to fill out a genre survey, so he and his small team could sift through their donations and match clients’ needs. 

 Crystal Villanueva, a residential aide at the Oak Park-based nonprofit SisterHouse, said she completed Franklin’s survey on the behalf of her clients who were looking for a wide range of books. They wanted an assortment, from nonfiction to cookbooks, crafts and easy reads, said Villanueva who works closely with women in recovery.

Villanueva told the Journal that when she joined SisterHouse last year, the library was small, and most of the books were not in good condition.

“We always have donors that are like, ‘Hey, I want to donate to you guys. I want to give you guys this and this,’ and then it’s like pages [of the books] are damaged or missing,” she said. “That doesn’t do us good if we can’t provide material that is intact.”

That’s why Villanueva was inclined to partner with Taylor.

“When Franklin reached out, I was like, ‘You know what? OK. Let’s have a conversation. Let’s see what we can do.’ I’m of the mind that if I can give somebody a book, then that’s giving them a gift,” she said.

Taylor and Villanueva shared that their partnership speaks to the importance of providing access – and that includes books.  

In 2011, more than a decade ago, Southern Illinois University’s economics and finance department released a report saying that about 30% of Chicagoans – roughly 330,000 people – had limited literacy skills. In addition, the Chicago Citywide Literacy Coalition (CCLC) noted that individuals with low literacy skills are more likely to face higher healthcare costs. The coalition also stated that children of parents with low literacy skills and do not receive the necessary academic intervention are more likely to require additional “costly” education resources.

There’s a domino effect, and efforts like Taylor’s help combat a larger issue.

“I want to make sure that our clients have [access to books] because a lot of them have trauma in their past. They have situations where they weren’t able to complete their education. They come from a wide range of backgrounds, and accessibility to literature was not high on their spectrum,” Villanueva said.

Taylor added, “If you grew up in Oak Park or if you grew up in a wealthier community, someone would look at you and be like, ‘What? I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ But for people that don’t necessarily have access to books, it really is a big thing.”

Taylor, who now lives in Germany, said he continues to manage his nonprofit and credits his board and team members for stepping up and collecting and distributing more books to those in need. Apart from SisterHouse, Our Future Reads has partnered with Oak Park School District 97 and other area groups such as the PCC Wellness Community Center, which has locations in Oak Park, Berwyn and Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, and New Moms, a nonprofit also based in Oak Park and the Austin neighborhood that works with young moms under the age of 24.

In an interview with the Journal, Jared Taylor, Franklin Taylor’s younger brother and an Our Future Reads board member, shared his thoughts on the nonprofit’s initiative to promote inclusivity and literacy.

Jared Taylor, a 20-year-old college junior, said that Our Future Reads has put a spin on the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

“Even if you judge a book by its cover, that’s OK,” said Jared Taylor, a Fenwick alumnus who now attends Knox College. “So, I feel like anything [that] sparks your attention to go and read, you should definitely go and do that.” 

Want to help? Here’s how.

Our Future Reads is currently accepting book donations, ranging from new to gently used books, textbooks and comics. Interested donors must make an appointment and can opt for a contactless pick-up. Our Future Reads also accepts monetary donations. To get involved or learn more about the local nonprofit, visit https://ourfuturereads.com/.

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