Seventeen-month-old Elliott Busa eagerly waits as a new package, addressed directly to him, arrives at his doorstep. He already knows what’s inside, and he can hardly contain himself as the anticipation of tearing into this latest parcel builds.
Nestled inside is a book, one more prized jewel for the book-obsessed Elliott to add to his growing collection.
The volume didn’t just appear out of thin air; it came courtesy of The Berkeley Baby Book Project (BBBP) an East Bay nonprofit that collaborates with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library to provide free books every month to children ages 0-5 in the Berkeley, Richmond and San Pablo areas.
Elliott’s mother, Julie Parker, is a second year law student, and she was initially anxious about how best to keep Elliott busy while she juggled student-mom life. She didn’t want to overload him on screen time, but thankfully, BBBP was ready with a more literary alternative.
Parker signed up for the program online, and within a matter of weeks, Elliott received his first book, Watty Piper’s classic “The Little Engine That Could.” It quickly became one of his favorite possessions, kickstarting a passion that would ultimately consume the young boy.
“He reaches for a book more often than a toy,” Parker said.
While Elliott still has a way to go before kindergarten, there’s no harm in hitting the ground running. In fact, early exposure to books is a crucial stepping stone in preparing children for academic success, and it’s this necessity that drove BBBP executive director Seena Hawley to launch the nonprofit.
Hawley worked as an elementary school teacher in San Jose for 13 years before becoming a Berkeley school bus driver in 2007. Over the years, she began to notice an issue: “I was meeting children all the time who didn’t have books in their home.”
So in 2008, she began handing out free books to kids on her bus. Then, wanting to make a bigger impact, she formed the BBBP in 2012, and officially partnered with the Imagination Library Program in 2015.
Parton’s Imagination Library has provided nearly 219 million free books to kids over the years, partnering with 2,700 local organizations, including the BBBP, along the way. Imagination Library provides and ships the books. The BBBP handles everything else, from outreach and enrollment to fundraising. To date 62,000+ books have been delivered to over 3600 East Bay children.
The only eligibility requirements for enrolling in BBBP are age — children must be under 5 years old — and city of residence. Berkeley families can apply at imaginationlibrary.com. Richmond and San Pablo residents can pick up mail-in forms from various Bay Area locations; find details at thebbbp.org.
The group hopes to raise $6,000 through the East Bay Times’ annual Share the Spirit program, which provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The money will be used to add online registration for Richmond and San Pablo families, and help with book invoices, outreach, and general management.
Hawley knows first hand the value of spreading the organization’s reach and how something as simple as a book can make a big difference in someone’s life.
Things came full circle for Hawley in 2020, when the educator-turned-executive, looking to bridge the reading gap on foot, stepped out one day to canvass neighborhoods and spread the word about the program. Hawley noticed a pregnant woman standing outside and approached her to share information about the BBBP, but as she began speaking, the woman cut her off, saying, “Miss Seena, is that you?”
It was Nazeeza Muhammad, one of Hawley’s former students. In a crazy coincidence, Muhammad had just heard about the program from a friend and was hoping to sign up. After applying online and reconnecting with Hawley, Muhammad was officially enrolled.
It was a blissful break for Muhammad, whose life up to this point was no cake walk. Homeless for most of her first pregnancy, she only found a place to live three days before the birth of her first son, Ze’kai. Five months later, Muhammad found out she was pregnant with her second son. Zaire arrived three months early and had to spend 48 days in the NICU, the neonatal intensive care unit.
Things may have gotten off to a rocky start, but Muhammad adopts a positive, can-do attitude and remains a vigilant mother. She got her sons started with the BBBP early on, and that’s really paid off. Zaire is only two years old, and Muhammad says people are shocked to see that he can already read.
“It blows my brother’s mind,” she said. “We get these books, still in the plastic. My brother will take them out, and then Zaire will sit there and read him the book. He’ll read everything.”
Hawley hopes the spotlight on the BBBP this holiday season will help secure funds to keep the operation running smoothly and expand the nonprofit’s reach.
“We have to close the readiness gap,” said Hawley, referring to the troubling finding that limited access to early learning experiences leaves children ill-prepared for early academics, including learning to read.
While the BBBP currently sends books to about 1,500 children each month, Hawley estimates that getting the new online form up and running will expand that to include as many as 1,000 to 3,000 new recipients.
Consider it the little engine that could.
Share the Spirit
The Share the Spirit holiday campaign, sponsored by the Bay Area News Group, provides relief, hope and opportunities for East Bay residents by helping raise money for nonprofit programs in Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
How to help
Donations will help The Berkeley Baby Book Project add online enrollment and invoicing to expand its book offerings to as many as 1,000 to 3,000 more children in the Berkeley, Richmond and San Pablo areas. Goal: $6,000.
How to give
Go to www.sharethespiriteastbay.org/donate or print and mail in the coupon.