May 19: Angels Appear (Part I)
Most Open Books programs grow from a seed idea, a set of students we want to work with, or the challenge of finding a way to use the resources we have. But one of them, which helps us reach tens of thousands of young readers each year, didn’t come from us at all.
In 1999, when I was still working in high-tech startups and wouldn’t have thought of “open books” as anything other than an accounting practice, Kermit Myers took his experience as a literacy volunteer in downtown Chicago and turned it into an official nonprofit organization with the simple mission of getting more books into students’ hands. By 2007, when we first heard about the project, Book Worm Angels had put lending libraries totaling 1.5 million books into 181 schools across the city.
Like Book Worm Angels, we believed 100% that access to fun books was an essential part of literacy work. As we got to know the organization, we discovered that we were working with and in many of their recipient schools. Through our founding work together at the Chicago Literacy Alliance, we began collaborating on projects like Literacy Nights, where participating nonprofits brought programs and resources to one school for a night, and Chicago Reads, where 19 organizations partnered to provide coordinated services to one school for two years. And as we bonded over the shared scars of book collection and processing, we began discussing something more significant.
Mike Ban, Executive Director of Book Worm Angels, was a serial entrepreneur with a background in sales and acquisitions. He had big plans for the organization and knew that, to bring them to scale, he’d need operational assets not currently in its portfolio. Originally, our talks were about how Book Worm Angels might be able to outsource some of its book processing and distribution to Open Books. Since there hadn’t been a Chicago-area literacy organization merger in at least forty years, well before either of us entered the sector, it didn’t at first occur to us to consider the possibility. But as the complications of outsourcing got clearer and clearer, our for-profit memories swam to the surface. It would make infinite sense, we realized, for Book Worm Angels to merge into Open Books as a program. And so, buoyed by each other and happily oblivious of the hurdles ahead, we drafted a simple memorandum of understanding and went to our respective Boards of Directors to propose the deal.
A year later, after multiple rounds of negotiation, restatement, redrafting, due diligence, and extensive consideration, we were official.
With the paperwork out of the way, we got down to business, beginning with the transfer of all Book Worm Angels’ accumulated books out of their storage units and into our warehouse…a process with which, as this history reflects, we were all too familiar. Once everything was safely under one roof, we began sorting and stocking donations for schools. With Mike’s oversight, we revised the program description just slightly so that the books could be used however the receiver educators wished, whether that was for in-classroom use or to give to students to keep. We’d done something the literacy sector hadn’t seen in decades, and we couldn’t have been more excited.