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Associate professor helps local youth succeed one book at a time

Growing up in Jackson, Alabama, Sheneka Williams saw firsthand how living in a rural community could hinder access to something most people take for granted—books.

Today, her passion for increasing access and narrowing the opportunity gap with the nonprofit organization, Books for Keeps, is helping thousands of at-risk youth combat the effects of "summer slide," the learning loss many students experience while they are away from school.

"It wasn't about Sheneka feeling great about herself, it was about seeing the book distributions and how many people were being helped by what we do," said Williams, an associate professor in UGA's College of Education. "I can thank Books for Keeps for getting me involved in the Athens community beyond UGA. That has been invaluable to me."

Books for Keeps is one of the more than 1,100 organizations supported by UGA's annual Campaign for Charities, which ends Dec. 7.

As board president of Books for Keeps, Williams serves the organization in a variety of ways, from acting as a liaison between the 12 board members and the organization's executive director, Leslie Hale, to building relationships with the Clarke County School District, where it operates in 13 elementary schools, as well as five others across Georgia.

Every spring, Williams looks forward to distributing thousands of books—which are collected, inspected and sorted in boxes by volunteers throughout the year—to students on Books for Keeps Day. This event gives each child the opportunity to choose 12 books to take home and read to help prevent summer slide.

"It's like a badge of honor for these little ones to have a bag they can barely carry full of books," she said. "It also says something about access and that if a child has access to educational opportunity, then that can be a game changer for their future."

As part of Books for Keeps' research committee, Williams is particularly interested in securing funds to study the organization's impact on students. Thanks to this partnership between UGA and the organization, faculty at the university can acquire the necessary data to see if children who participate in Books for Keeps Day actually experience a boost in their vocabulary and reading comprehension skills.

"Athens has a lot of poverty, and there are a lot of children in need, so I think it's a beautiful thing that we have faculty across the university, who like myself, donate and have an interest in BFK because we see the connection," said Williams.

This past August, Books for Keeps hosted its most successful annual book sale to date. In addition to raising funds for the organization, the event also gives local teachers the opportunity to stock their classrooms with any remaining books from the fundraiser.

While Williams is focused on making sure all children in Athens have a book they can read at home, no matter their socioeconomic standing, she is eager to expand the organization's efforts across the entire state.

"When I think broadly about the work I do, whether it's for Books for Keeps, my classroom or my research, the work is always larger than me," said Williams. "I have to do work I think matters to generations beyond me, otherwise what good am I to be in these positions. It's about the generations behind me, and so I choose to give my time, energy, resources and work life to making the next generation better."

© University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602