“So Much Joy”: The PoWeR! Book Bags Volunteer Story

By Veronica Gregory
Sun contributor

Dr. Kara Gregory smiles as she watches the three tents of children sitting in the park underneath a banner of a cartoon with a book in its hands. Kids move around pieces in a board game, scribble with crayons, and listen to a storyteller read from a picture book. This is Summer PoWeR! Days, a program hosted by the new nonprofit PoWeR! Book Bags in conjunction with 5toONE, the Suttons Bay-Bingham District Library, and the Traverse Area District Library and partly funded by the Traverse City Rotary’s Good Works Grant. Gregory, the mistress of ceremonies in the three-tent literacy event, is the founder and executive director of the PoWeR! Book Bags. (She’s also my mom.) This nonprofit, together with local volunteers and businesses such as Little Bees (who kicked the program off with free gelato), is a big factor in the happiness of its attending children.

PoWeR! Book Bags launched in March 2016, and since then it has worked with pantries in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties to give out book bags to children. As of early August, the nonprofit had given out more than 21,000 books and 4,000 book bags. Each of the book bags comes with literacy materials, such as nontoxic crayons, “create-your-own story” booklets, a finger puppet, and a few books that the children choose themselves. Every component of the bag is important, because as Gregory, a former kindergarten teacher and professor at Michigan State University, says, “Literacy is reading, writing, speaking, listening, and viewing, and the best way to help children with literacy is through play.” She emphasizes that “play actually makes the biggest difference. A playful attitude, or a playful heart, and, literally, play.”

Eleven sites host PoWeR! Book Bags throughout Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Wexford and Mason counties, including Leelanau Christian Neighbors, the Glen Arbor food pantry, and the Empire food pantry, and the future holds many more prospective locations. Volunteers come from across counties and even other states including New York, New Mexico, Texas and Florida. As well as reading and assisting during Summer PoWeR! Days, members of the community attend PoWeR! Book Bags work bees. They fold and staple the blank create-your-own-story booklets, bag little pouches of fresh crayons, and slide the materials into hundreds of homemade cloth book bags. Gregory observes, “It’s the community that is supporting the children that live in it. This is a true community project.”

Another popular volunteer activity for PoWeR! Book Bags is cutting and sewing the book bags. Gregory explains, “our [PoWeR! Book Bags’] goal was to make the children feel special and treasured, and so instead of a mass-produced bag — which can be nice for different reasons — we really wanted to have them [the book bags] be individual bags, so that the children could pick the bag that suited them.”

PoWeR! Book Bags also gathers thousands of children’s books, in order to give the children choices and sustain the programs. Gregory explains that “each time the children come back, they pick more books. The initial time they pick their bag and they pick the books they want, and then each time they come back they pick more books and more create-your-own story booklets and crayons.” Lots of the books are purchased at the Blue Vase Book Exchange, a local business. However, some of the donations also come from members of the community who drop precious brand-new books in the donation bins in bookstores, businesses and even the City Opera House in Traverse City on the National Writers Series’ author conversation nights.

There are many accounts of children treasuring their goodies from PoWeR! Book Bags. For instance, Gregory recounts that one child reportedly keeps their favorite dinosaur books on their bed like stuffed animals, and another child has attended Summer PoWeR! Days a few times looking specifically for fire engine-related books. Summer PoWeR! Days have yielded even more stories. Gregory recalls, “We had one little girl [who] wrote us a book about her day. We’ve had many repeat customers, which tells me people are probably pretty happy.”

One “repeat customer,” albeit of the volunteering variety but as pleased as the children, is former librarian Leigh Fairey. In addition to helping out at Summer PoWeR! Days, Fairey also is a volunteer at the Empire food pantry and supervises the distribution of PoWeR! book bags at community dinners. She comments that, “I hope that more kids get books in their hands, and get used to having people read to them, instead of just looking at their phones, that they are introduced to the pleasure of stories and narrative and reading out loud, and that they will continue to read.” Fairey notes, “the hardest thing about this operation is getting the word out. I know that there are more kids out there who would love to have books and book bags and writing materials and they just don’t know about us.”

PoWeR! Book Bags runs three programs: Summer PoWeR! Days, The Pantry Project, and Literacy for Summer (camps and migrant summer schools). Gregory reflects that, “I’ve never found more joy in my life than doing this, with the exception of being a mom.” Since PoWeR! Book Bags is “100 percent community-based,” volunteers are always welcomed. “Everyone makes a difference, no matter how big or how small their efforts, because literacy changes lives.”

Learn more about PoWeR! Book Bags at the nonprofit’s website, www.powerbookbags.org, or its Facebook page. Interested parties can also email powerbookbags@gmail.com. Summer PoWeR! Days will continue to be held every Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 to 11:30 a.m. until August 16, on Tuesdays at the Suttons Bay Village Marina Park and on Wednesdays at the Blair Township Park & Splash Pad in Grawn. This free program is open to all children.