New director of Books for Keeps in Athens pushes program to new heights

Volunteers unpacked boxes and stocked shelves at the Books for Keeps warehouse in eastern Athens on a Friday morning in preparation for the association’s book fair. The dusty smell of new and old books was noticeable even through a face mask, and the sound of the organizers settling in mingled with rock music played over a portable speaker.

The executive director of the nonprofit was the busiest in the room, alternating between helping several volunteers and taking care of depositing donations at the warehouse loading dock. Justin Bray took this role two months ago, after serving as a program director for 3.5 years.

The Community Book Fair, which runs until October 23, is the organization’s largest in its history, with around 100,000 books available to the public. That’s 30,000 to 40,000 pounds more to earn than usual.

The non-profit organization’s lack of physical mobility last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to that increase, but Bray said he hoped the change would broaden its reach.

“By following how we’ve had to adapt the program over the past two years, we’ve really shown as a staff what we’re capable of,” said Bray. “And we want to see (the pandemic) both as a time of exceptional evil and as what we can learn from it. “

Dive into a new chapter

Bray discovered Books for Keeps through his wife, Anna, while she was a primary school teacher in Athens. He said he got involved because of his love for children and the company’s focus on education.

“We (as a society) keep literacy,” Bray said. “And success also comes from literacy. “

Books for Keeps began in 2009 as a solution to an elementary school student’s summer dilemma: her access to books was lost when the school library closed for summer vacation. The association’s founder, Melaney Smith, collected books for the students, and the following year began receiving donations from across the country.

Books for Keeps aims to prevent the “summer slide” among the youth of Athens-Clarke County, by providing free books for children of all ages to stay mentally engaged during the summer vacation months. Books for Keeps also donates books to schools in Atlanta, Elberton and Warrenton.

Smith said Bray is a resourceful and imaginative leader whose skills were tested when the organization’s annual book donation underwent a dramatic change in the spring of 2020.

Stop Summer Slide offers K-12 students free books to read during the summer months when schools and their libraries are closed. Books for Keeps normally travel to each school to deliver the books, but the pandemic has called for a change in plans.

Bray and the Books for Keeps team opened an online store for six weeks so students could virtually place orders and receive their selected books from home. Smith said she was shocked that Bray could organize and mobilize last year’s event and its 300 volunteers so quickly.

“It’s not just that he pulled off something spectacular,” Smith said. “But to have had the courage to try even that when the odds of failure were enormous.”

Bray, who has lived in Athens for 10 years, has developed the customer service skills he uses as an Executive Director while working at various locations in the city including Chick-fil-A, The Rook & Pawn and Creature Comforts. . He also attributes his leadership style to his mother, who taught him to treat others with respect in order to have the respect returned.

Bray also oversaw the transfer of the local branch of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library from United Way of Northeast Georgia to Books for Keeps last summer. The program offers registered infants from birth to age 5 a free book each month until they reach the library’s age limit. Books for Keeps became the owner of the Clarke County portion on October 1.

Following:Program that provides free books to thousands of local children improves participation

From volunteer to leader

Bray’s ability to turn ideas into reality makes him a strong leader, which is something

Former Books for Keeps chief executive Leslie Hale said she first saw potential in him as a volunteer. She said Bray’s work ethic also drove her to hire him as a program manager and recommend him for the executive director position.

“I have truly had the privilege of calling him a colleague and colleague,” Hale said. “(And I am) delighted to support him in his new role.”

Hale was Director of Books for Keeps for eight years, helping to transform the organization from a grassroots personal project into an influential nonprofit serving five local counties. Hale said it was important to her for the organization to fall into good hands before she left in June.

“I am the past of Books for Keeps,” Hale said. “And the people who move it forward and make strategic decisions for the future had to be the people who identify the new executive director.”

The team developed a strategic plan in 2020 to grow the organization over the next two years. These plans include expanding the global reach of Books for Keeps, raising awareness of literary disabilities among young people, and nurturing its current partnerships with local schools. It does not plan to deviate from its primary goal of providing students with equal access to books.

Between trips to collect book donations dropped off for the fair, Bray discussed his greatest motivations as Toto’s “Africa” ​​echoed through the Books for Keeps warehouse space. Bray’s love for reading as a child in east Atlanta died out growing up, but was revitalized through Books for Keeps.

The most rewarding part of his job, he said, is being able to work with children and help them grow in literacy.

“The kids are so cool,” Bray said. “Some people will say that I am naive in some ways and trustworthy, but I learned that from the kids. And I think it’s important to hang on to it.

About Georgia Duvall

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