Madison Reading Project surpasses 100,000 children served, nears 200,000 books given

Virtual grand opening celebration is announced for May 26 and new public fundraiser is underway.
Rowan Childs and two Madison Reading Project staff members stand around a table packing up books to donate in the new space on Madison's south side.
Photo by Maggie Ginsberg.

Madison Reading Project, or MRP, announced Tuesday it will hold a virtual grand opening on May 26 to celebrate its new location, and that the organization has now served 100,000 children. “At least 90%” of them live in Dane County, says executive director Rowan Childs, who founded the nonprofit in 2013. Equally remarkable, MRP has donated 193,000 books to date — and it had only reached the 100,000 books milestone in October 2019. That means that despite a pandemic year, a three-month shut down and moving to a new brick-and-mortar space at 1337 Greenway Cross this spring, MRP gave away as many books to area children in the past 18 months as it did its first six years combined.

“When I think of the slow lead-up from founding it, and that very first year when I was like, ‘Wow, I’ve given away like 300 books! Then it was a thousand. Then we were like, let’s think of a big crazy goal — 5000,” Childs says.

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Rowan Childs sits in the reading corner where books are displayed on the two shelves that once held the entirety of Madison Reading Project’s collection back when she founded the organization in 2013. Photo by Maggie Ginsberg.

It’s a journey worth celebrating, one Childs couldn’t have possibly foreseen when the project began with $1,000 seed money and 30 kids in an after school program. Thanks to a growing staff, dedicated volunteers and widespread community support, year after year the organization exceeded goals and grew both strategically and exponentially, partnering with schools, food pantries, community centers and other groups to close literacy gaps by giving away purchased and donated books to kids.

Then the pandemic began, changing everything.

“That last week or two, right before that hard lockdown, we tried to get as many books out as possible to teachers and social workers, just thinking like, you know, it might be a couple of weeks that kids are not in school or are without reading supplies,” Childs says. “Then our office was closed to book donations from that point on, similarly to libraries, when we weren’t sure how the virus was transmitted and we didn’t want to get anyone sick.”

But Childs also saw the unprecedented pause as an opportunity to pivot. It had long been an organizational goal to purchase more books in bulk, particularly high demand items such as books in Spanish, stories featuring diverse characters and graphic novels. “Things that we know that kids will want to read immediately without hardly any encouragement,” Childs says.

New books featuring diverse characters are stacked on shelves at the new Madison Reading Project center.

Books organized by genre and age are displayed at the new Madison Reading Project center. Photo by Maggie Ginsberg.

MRP decided to launch a fundraising drive in a pandemic, which successfully led to the purchase of thousands of new books. Its Big Red Reading Bus, which had been acquired by another fundraiser in May 2019 and intended for popup use to invite children on board at events, transformed into a suddenly needed delivery vehicle. Ultimately, in 2020, MRP managed to give away 76,000 books.

Childs says MRP’s mission “to deliver high quality, literacy learning reinforcement programs to underserved children” was certainly nothing new — but the pandemic seemed to heighten the broader community’s awareness of the need.

“There are so many families or educators who don’t have the funds or the means to have those types of books in their home,” says Childs, noting that 2/3 of kids from low-income households don’t have books at home, and books at home are the single biggest indicator of academic success. “Those are things we’ve been talking about for a long time. But I think finally with the pandemic and realizing people are stuck at home and kids don’t have books, or they only have these very limited supplies and if there’s any extra funds it’s not going to go to a fancy new book for a kid. So I feel like a lot of things just clicked.”

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A 2020 fundraiser allowed Madison Reading Project to purchase more new books in bulk than ever before, and a new south side location is more accessible and welcoming for the community partners it serves. Photo by Maggie Ginsberg.

By then, MRP had also outgrown its small, third floor office on Madison’s west side, even before social distancing made the space feel tighter for the staff of 10. They started looking for a new spot to relocate, somewhere with a more visible, accessible, first-floor entrance (no more lugging carts of books up to and down from the third floor) and closer to public transportation hubs and the community partners MRP serves.

In February, they found that home on the south side, a sunny, 2,500-square-foot retail space on Greenway Cross. (The old space could have fit entirely in the new back storage and break room area, Childs says.) The team has been spreading out ever since, unpacking boxes for display even as they pack up new boxes for ongoing distribution. Today, MRP announced its virtual grand opening celebration will take place May 26. Childs hopes for something larger in-person, possibly in the fall.

Fundraising efforts continue as well, with a new campaign to upgrade technology, add shelving and secure furniture for the new space. The organization continues to maintain “Wish Lists” at A Room of One’s Own bookstore, Books4School, Target and Amazon.

“Whether you’re 50 or you’re 20 or you’re 5, being able to have a brand new book that you’re excited about, there’s just nothing like that feeling of knowing that book is yours and you get to keep it,” Childs says, adding that, just like acquiring the Big Read Bus marked a turning point for the organization, so, too, will this move. She expects to hit the 200,000 books donated milestone within the next couple of weeks.

“I’m just really excited for everyone who’s involved in our organization because everything was topsy turvy,” Childs says. “I feel like we’ve found a really good way to help kids and families throughout the pandemic with quality books and literacy kits and ways to partner with new organizations that we hadn’t partnered with before.”

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