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Free books change the reading culture for Bellingham families

Kids Need Books! hands out free books to some Bellingham students

Joe Nolting of Kids Need Books! describes how free books are changing the reading culture in some of Bellingham's poorest and most ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Books are distributed at weeknight food banks in local elementary schools.
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Joe Nolting of Kids Need Books! describes how free books are changing the reading culture in some of Bellingham's poorest and most ethnically diverse neighborhoods. Books are distributed at weeknight food banks in local elementary schools.

A retired teacher is making sure that families in the Alderwood and Cordata areas can nourish their minds, in addition to their bodies, when they stop for groceries at weeknight food banks in their neighborhood schools.

Joe Nolting, who moved to Bellingham four years ago from Alaska, has been collecting donations of new and gently used children’s books and giving them away at the schools’ “pop-up” food banks. Nolting said he has distributed more than 3,500 books since last summer and is on track to provide 10,000 free books this year.

It’s part of the Kids Need Books! effort to foster a love of reading, a project of the Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County. The aim is to help families in economically challenged and ethnically diverse areas build their home libraries and help children avoid the summer slump of learning during the vacation months.

“The response was really good,” Nolting said. “People were ecstatic about getting books. A lot of people that were getting books were young parents. The parents were super enthusiastic about (board books) because those are typically pretty expensive, $8 to $14.”

Book donations have come from local residents, from Village Books, from local libraries’ Friends organizations and from grants, Nolting said.

He said many poorer families have turned to reading for entertainment because of the high cost of TV and internet service and the expensive electronic devices required to access digital media.

“They can’t afford cable TV, so they read,” Nolting said.

Children also enjoy action-oriented books and titles that reference pop culture, such as Disney princesses and Transformers. Series books such as “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” are popular, too.

“As a retired educator and a person who also loves books, it’s important for me to see kids reading, and parents reading to their kids,” Nolting said. “I want families to have a home library because having books in the home is a good predictor of kids finishing high school and entering college.”

Robert Mittendorf: 360-756-2805, @BhamMitty

Kids Need Books!

What: Tax-deductible cash donations and donations of gently used books are accepted at the Interfaith Coalition of Whatcom County at St. James Presbyterian Church, 910 14th St.

Questions: 360-734-3983

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