Books Brighten Children's Christmas

In Dixon, IL, Carolyn Chin and her late husband, Larry Dunphy, cofounded Books on First in 1998, a bookstore to help build community in the city's downtown area. In November and December, an additional focus drives the store's efforts: generosity. 

For nearly 20 years, the store has coordinated its Books for Babes holiday program to support children in LSSI's foster care. During the 2020 pandemic was no exception. Patrons are invited to purchase a book from the store to be given to a child in foster care. On top of that, Books on First takes a percentage of its profits and buys warm winter clothing to be donated with the books. 

This year, Chin didn’t know if her store would be open during the holidays, because selling books had not been considered an "essential service" under state regulations early in the pandemic, so she had to shut down for awhile. She committed to doing the project anyway, knowing how important books and clothing would be to deserving children. 

Chin credits longtime former employee Brenda Spratt with the idea for Books for Babes. Not long after Spratt came to work there, having noticed several local programs like Toys for Toys, she pitched the idea of a book program for children in need and partnering with LSSI, which Books on First eagerly supported. 

In previous years, Books on First received between 150 and 175 names of children on average. In 2020, the number grew to 259 names. 

"There's no way we will disappoint any kids," Chin said. "We put word out about this important goal. One guy down the street is a hairstylist, who shared our Facebook post with his followers. He doesn't normally accept tips, but this time of year he tells his clients, 'If you give me a tip, it will support Books for Babes' or another local project like ours. His sister is a college professor in Florida, who shared it with her colleagues. They were enthusiastic about supporting the project." 

People who don't know what kids would read donate money and ask the store to select a title. "Some give money for one book and ask us to select an appropriate book," Chin said. "One lady gave $100 and said, 'Buy as many books for children as you can.'" 

As people take tags off the tree with names of children, Chin replaces them with more. One patron told Chin that when she and her husband first married, instead of giving gifts to each other, they decided to give gifts to a child in need each year. "She remembered the first child's name was Brittany. As she's telling me this, her daughter found a tag for a girl named Brittany, so she could again give to Brittany," said Chin. "Grandparents often come in with a grandchild and participate in this project together. And some people want to order books that they liked as kids to give to other kids." 

One year, a childless patron bought a book and a journal about basketball for a child who she was told liked basketball. "She left Books on First, went to a sporting goods store to buy a basketball, brought it back to go with the books, and said, 'Thank you for the opportunity to buy presents for a child,'" Chin said. "We're happy to give both our customers and LSSI's children in foster care the opportunity to celebrate the season of giving."