Local recognized by L’Oreal for helping children succeed

Six years ago, Melaney Smith, found herself throwing a tantrum.

Her hair-raising, foot-stomping, temper tantrum came on when she learned that two elementary school children did not have books at home to read during the summer.

“I thought why doesn’t somebody do something about this?  And then I thought, I am somebody,” said Smith, 49 of Athens.

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The Macon native had planned to help the two children by giving them books, but after contacting school administrators, Smith learned there were a lot more than two children who had no access to books during the summer months.

So Smith created Books for Keeps, a 501(c)(3) since 2011, that provides 12 books to children in grades K-5 at the end of each school year.

This month, her efforts were rewarded with at $10,000 grant from L’Oreal Paris’ Women of Worth program. Now Smith is in the running for an additional $25,000 to be determined by public votes and awarded at a ceremony in New York on December 1.

Click here to vote once per day for Smith before November 20 to help Books for Keeps win $25,000.

Smith wasn’t initially familiar with “summer slide,” — the term that refers to the loss of academic skills that children may experience during the summer months. Research led Smith to Dr. Jennifer Graff, a professor at University of Georgia College of Education who co-authored a study on the topic. Graff helped her create a program that was aligned with the study results and methods.

At the end of each school year, Books for Keeps hosts a mock book fair. Children attend with their class and leave with 12 books each. Participating schools are Title 1 schools with about 90 – 100 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunch, Smith said.

The first year, Smith discovered she had books that kids didn’t want — donated books or books about topics they weren’t interested in. So the organization changed its model from book drives to fundraisers. Today, Books for Keeps offers children a curated selection of books based on what is popular and what the kids say they want to read during interviews each year.

“If we expect them to read at home during the summer with no encouragement from adults, they have to have something they like to read,” Smith said.

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Most of the books for distribution are purchased. While they try to cap costs at $2 per book, they also have to get grants to pay for the more expensive books that kids want. For example, lots of kids are crazy about WWE Undertaker readers, but the books are beyond Books for Keeps’ budget, said Smith, who is on a mission to get donations through the WWE organization.

In all, it takes about $180,000 to run Books for Keeps with books costing about $30 – $40 per child. Currently the program serves 4,000 students at eight schools in Athens, one in Atlanta (Dunbar Elementary) and one in Warrenton.

The organization recently completed a plan to expand to all Clark County schools in Athens and at least five more schools in Atlanta. Smith, who took three years off from her job as an information security analyst to get Books for Keeps off the ground, believes in smart growth.

“We don’t add a school until we have community support that we know will last,” she said. “Our expansion funds are seed funds, but there has to be community support.”

She hopes exposure from the L’Oreal honor will help spread the word about Books for Keeps, particularly in Atlanta. And she hopes to meet and network with her fellow Women of Worth next month in New York.

When a film crew came to Athens to film her Woman of Worth video, it seemed Smith was far from her temper tantrum days. One teacher stated that so many of the children have gaps in their lives. They often feel less than, the teacher said, but on Books for Keeps day, they feel same as.

“That breaks my heart and makes me happy at the same time,” Smith said.

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