2016-09-14 / Local News

Teen wins national award for bringing books to kids


FAMILY: Parents Lisa and Dean, sister Jordan, 12

HOMETOWN: Voorhees

SYNAGOGUE: Temple Emanuel

FAVORITE BOOK: “An Abundance of Katherines” by John Green



Alexa Grabelle first heard about the “summer slide” while browsing through the letter for parents sent home with the Voorhees schools’ summer reading packet at the end of fifth grade.

At first amused and curious about the term that seemed like it should be more related to playgrounds than to reading, she decided to Google it. But the more she read about how students, particularly from low-income families, lose academic gains over their summer breaks, the less amusing it sounded.

A voracious reader and lover of books, Alexa was particularly upset to learn that the lack of access to books disadvantages many otherwise eager learners.

“I thought about how, if I want to read a book, I can read a book,” said Alexa, now 15 and a sophomore at Eastern High School. “I can buy one, get one from the library or find one around my house. But many kids in Camden and other low-income communities can’t afford to buy them, going to libraries can be dangerous or may have outdated books.”

Getting books into the hands of kids in poorer communities was the impetus for Bag of Books, which creates “pop-up” stores where children can select a bag full of free books to create their own personal libraries. The project has grown from a modest initiative to help children in a single Camden school to one that brings together businesses, non-profits, service clubs and many others to work with schools throughout Camden and Philadelphia. Some 80,000 books exchanged hands last year.

And now, as one of 14 recipients across the country of the 2016 Diller Teen Tikkun Olam award, Alexa plans to significantly grow the program. Besides attending a recognition ceremony in San Francisco in August, where she met the other accomplished teen finalists, Alexa received $36,000 from the Helen Diller Family Foundation that can be used to further develop the program or for her own education.

She said she was inspired to apply after Marissa Hacker, a fellow Voorhees resident, in 2015 received the award that recognizes Jewish youth leaders for creating social change and working to solve their communities’ pressing challenges. Hacker, a sophomore at Stockton University, is the founder of Fantastic Friends, a social group for young adults, teens and tweens with special needs.

“I’m so grateful to the Helen Diller Family Foundation for giving me this opportunity to further my vision for helping others,” said Alexa. “And I’m so excited to announce that starting this year, Bags of Books will be collecting books on behalf of the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) charter schools across the country.”

Collections are already underway for KIPP schools in Delaware and California.

From the very beginning, Bag of Books was impressive. In the same year she started middle school, Alexa collected some 2,000 new and gently used books from friends, classmates, educators, service clubs, churches and synagogues and anyone else willing to help out. The books were delivered to Bonsall Family School in Camden, where Alexa’s religious-school teacher Barbara Gail worked as an art teacher and helped coordinate the event.

“This was a big deal,” recalled Gail, who continues to work with Alexa at a different Camden school. “The kids were beyond thrilled be able to pick out books and actually be able to take them home, keep them, share them with family and friends.”

Alexa too was moved. After so much research and planning, to witness the book exchange in action brought it to life.

“I knew my project was a success when a first-grade girl approached me after receiving a bag full of books, hugged me tight and said, ‘This is the best day of the school year,’” she recalled.

Alexa said her plan for expansion involves connecting schools around the country with businesses and other organizations in their area willing to run book drives.

“I can match any company with a school in need and the donated books will be delivered directly to those schools so that they can provide books to children who need them most,” she said. “These book drives cost nothing and make a world of difference. They are a win-win for everyone!”

For more information, visit the website at backofbooks.org or email Alexa at bagsofbooks@yahoo.com. s

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