Grade schooler Isaris Ramos smiled as she sorted through her bag of eight new books.
A fantasy novel, a comic book, and an illustrated biography of Albert Einstein.
“I’m going to read them all when I get home,” said Isaris, a sixth grader at Jahn Elementary in Lake View.
Isaris was among a crowd of students chanting “We want books” as volunteers from the charity Bernie’s Book Bank passed out bags of free books Thursday.
The volunteers were midway through their 20-mile “Walk As One Chicago” fundraiser from Guaranteed Rate Field to Wrigley Field and back. They stopped at schools along the way to promote book ownership and literacy.
They planned to return by nightfall to throw the first pitch at the Sox game.
The annual event, now in its third year, grew out of a dare given on-air to ESPN Chicago host David Kaplan after the start of the pandemic.
“I was talking about how divided we are,” Kaplan said. Republican versus Democrat, Sox versus Cubs. “And I hated it.”
Kaplan’s producer dared him to do a unity walk across the city. “And I said that’s a great idea. I’m going to walk home from work for 29 miles.”
Kaplan started searching for a worthy charity and landed on Bernie’s Book Bank.
He’s still amazed to see kids’ reactions at book giveaways.
“I had a mom walk up to me. She was crying. And I’m like, ‘Are you OK?’ She’s like, ‘I don’t know what to say. I can’t buy books for my kids. I don’t have any money.’
“To see what this charity does, they’re the heroes,” Kaplan said. “What they do, getting books to these little kids. Look at them. They’re all excited to read.”
Jahn Elementary Principal Derrick Kimbrough said it was a “no-brainer” to host the book distribution for his students.
“As a lover of reading and a former literacy teacher, I always want to see books in my students’ hands,” Kimbrough said. The school, at 3149 N. Wolcott Ave., has been hosting the giveaways since 2018.
Kimbrough hopes the kids can keep these books in their home library and maybe pass them on to younger siblings “continuing a tradition that builds that legacy of reading.”
That sense of book ownership is a critical part of the charity’s mission, Bernie’s Book Bank CEO Darrin Utynek said.
“We want children to build their literacy foundation on their own terms, which means, at home, when they want to read, they should have access to books,” he said.
“We want to build a home library for them,” he said, noting that some library books are considered too valuable to be checked out. “Eight books each year from birth through sixth grade, then we really feel like we’ve gotten them on their journey.”
Bernie’s Book Bank has provided children with more than 22 million books since the charity began in Lake Forest in 2009. It serves kids from preschool to sixth grade, and hands out around 300,000 books annually to 900 schools in Chicago and the collar counties.
The idea was to create a “revolutionary children’s book-bank model,” founder Brian Floriani has said. Rather than giving a child one book, the nonprofit forms relationships with schools and visits them multiple times a year, giving kids bags of books at a time.
Floriani, a pro golfer, named Bernie’s Book Bank after his father, who died unexpectedly in 2005. “It shook me to my core and led me from the golf business toward a life of service,” Floriani told the Sun-Times in 2013.
After getting their books Thursday, the kids sat on the school steps near the playground, sharing among themselves the new additions to their personal libraries.
Essence Durr was most excited about her new copy of “The Legend of Shadow High,” by Shannon and Dean Hale. Essence, a sixth grader, loves to read in her free time and dedicates at least 30 minutes a day to reading.
Amaya Gonzalez, another sixth grader, said, “I’m very excited to get a bunch of books that I would love to read. Definitely going to read them.”