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This New Jersey family plans to tour the East Coast and give out free books to promote childhood literacy

By Zoe Sottile, CNN

A New Jersey family plans to distribute free books along the East Coast this summer from a custom-renovated “bookmobile” in an effort to promote childhood literacy.

Kaila Boulware Sykes and her husband, Raymond, met while they were students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Throughout our entire relationship we always did community service work,” Sykes told CNN.

When her family encountered discrimination at a local book store, she knew it was another opportunity to expand their community service work.

In 2021, the couple, who are Black, visited a book store in Ocean County, New Jersey, with their son, Truth, now 2 years old. “We took him there because they had hundreds of thousands of books,” said Sykes. “We wanted to give our son the experience of being in a literary playground.”

But in the bookstore, Sykes said, “We weren’t welcome, people were staring, whispering at us,” she said. “We were frustrated, we were a little upset.”

The experience inspired Sykes and her husband to found their own book store, “where everyone feels welcome.” Four weeks later, in June 2021, the Hidden Gems Literary Emporium, a nonprofit donation-based book store, had its grand opening. Over 500 people attended, Sykes said.

This was “our first sign that we were doing something important that the community needed.”

Since then, they’ve distributed over 15,000 free books through their events. And now, Sykes is fund raising on GoFundMe to purchase and renovate an RV into their own custom mobile bookstore. The family plans to travel from New Jersey to Florida, handing out 1,000 free books along the way. It’s the second iteration of their free book tour, after they made a similar trip last year in their Chevy minivan.

“It’s a cool way to spread love, spread smiles, spread joy, spread our theme of making reading exciting for people of all ages,” she said.

The book tour fits into Hidden Gems’ larger goal of promoting childhood literacy, said Sykes — a project which has become even more crucial as reading scores dropped during the pandemic, according to analysis from the Northwest Evaluation Association.

So far, Hidden Gems has received a total of 40,000 books as donations, Sykes said. They receive donations from organizations and individuals, as well as some authors who donate their books. They sell lightly used books from their storefront in New Brunswick in addition to handing out free books at community events.

“The amount of community support that we have received from this has literally been overwhelming, in a great way,” Sykes said. “People from all over the world, as far as Australia, the Netherlands, Ghana, have supported our effort by donating books or sending monetary donations.”

“It really is quite amazing, the impact that can be made on literally an entire generation if we all come together and pitch in,” she said.

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