Laundromat Library LeagueFree
Washing and Reading
West Chester, Pennsylvania
It started as an idea of something she might like to do in retirement, and now Laundromat Library League is a dream come true for many thousands of children all over the United States. Arlene Rengert had shared this idea—providing free books to children in places they frequent, often with impoverished caregivers—with her friend Karen Iacobucci. And by 2014, the pair had co-founded the non-profit Laudromat Library League in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Rengert says, “Getting books into the hands of children is something that may not happen without this work, especially in the pre-school years. And by school years there is already a large gap between children who have had books at home and those that have not.”
It’s an established fact that children who don’t have books in their homes usually start their literacy lives well behind their academic peers…and they don’t often catch up. Rengert and Iacobucci reasoned that children without books at home are more likely to have caregivers without the time or other resources to take them to get books. And families relying on the laundromat may also be families who can’t afford books easily. Their mission was set and their plan went into motion quickly.
Within days of deciding to get the project started, the friends found synchronicities happening to pave the way to LLL success. A dinner companion mentioned that he’d just bought a property that included a laundromat. That became their first location. They place new or gently-used books in the laundromat… and each book with the LLL sticker on the front. The sticker says, “Read it. Love it. Pass it on.” It didn’t take long before these book angels had company in the form of book drive organizers and funders. Rengert says the varied types of individuals and organizations who’ve stepped forward to help have been awe-inspiring. That list includes the American Association of University Women, Girl Scouts of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a Boy Scout Troop, a 4-H Club, a YMCA, a senior center, college and high school student groups, and several private businesses.
Through book drives and monetary donations, the Laundromat Library League has so far provided more than 93,000 books through 194 laundromats. About half these locations are in the Pennsylvania area, but there are LLL sites in 26 different states. Iacobucci says the vast majority of the books are gently-used donations but “we have purchased additional hundreds of what we call ‘enrichment’ books to add to those. ‘Enrichment books’ include those in Spanish and/or with multicultural themes or images, books that only rarely come to us as donated.”
And what is the net effect of this program? Nationally, it’s estimated that 61% of low-income families have no books for their children. Roughly half of those children will start kindergarten as many as two years behind their peers who’ve had the advantage of books at home. Recent studies show that young children who are read to daily have heard as many as one million more words than lower-income classmates by the time they enter school.
Although LLL has no firm data on their impact at this stage, they do have stories about the power of what they have initiated. Iacobucci recalls an especially poignant one. “Last spring a third grade teacher at a backyard barbecue related this story to gathered friends: she had assigned students to bring to class something from home that they ‘really love, and share why you love it.’ One child brought in a book with the LLL book sticker on the front. He shared, ‘This is my book. It’s my ONLY book, and that’s why I love it.’
These determined women understand the importance of the public library, but they also know that even great libraries don’t solve all the literacy challenges of the most impoverished families. Rengert points out that library “books need to be returned within a specified time period or fees paid, and… libraries usually require registration and other paperwork procedures that may be difficult or worrisome for caregivers that lack literacy themselves and/or speak a language other than English.” The Laundromat Library League is a bit of an oasis for these families.
Rengert and Iacobucci want to continue to grow not only their non-profit but also the practice of books distributed with care in places children and families frequent. Rengert provides this guidance. “We offer to mail our starter set of 60 children’s books, over the full reading range of toddler through teen with fiction and nonfiction, to anyone that obtains laundromat owner permission to place an LLL box of children’s books on the premises and who promises to “steward” the site at least twice a month. That means removing anything placed there that is not a children’s book and bringing replacement books, which we provide. We rejoice that at times it is a laundromat owner himself or herself that gets in touch to ask how they can obtain books from us.”
Iacobucci adds that they’ve been delighted to find there are similar programs at work now all over the country. “We welcome any and all literacy projects in all their forms! The more books we can get into the hands of under-served children, the better it is for all!“ Both women say they believe this is a testament to how committed people are, nationwide, to making sure children have access to books. With no salaried staff and with a team that’s now more than 500 volunteers strong and growing, the mission of getting books into kids’ hands seems to be in very good hands with the Laundromat Library League.
If you would like to contribute time or money to support the work of LLL, you can obtain information and find the donate button on their website. They are prepared to offer support for you to start and steward a great LLL location near you, as well. www.laundromatlibraryleague.org
Special Note: Since learning about the work of LLL and other groups similarly committed, HAPPY Reading has begun its own service project in laundromats in greater Richmond, Virginia. Over a period of months, we have given away hundreds of new children’s books and have provided reading material for both children and adults in several laundromats. We look forward to continuing to help grow this important endeavor in the weeks and months ahead as COVID-19 subsides.