December 2, 2008

40,000-book giveaway for kids Saturday

Happy young reader from 2007 (Photo by Mary Hauch)

Little-known fact: Santa Claus loves kids who know how to read.

And so, on Saturday, Santa and about 100 of his elves will give away books to perhaps 2,000 Racine kids. For free. Books by the handful! Colorful, age-appropriate, new books.

40,000 books!

All a kid has to do for the opportunity to pick through those thousands of books and choose an armload of his or her choice is show up at Merchants Moving and Storage on State Street between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. There's no need to prove income or need ... just a desire to read. The program is open to pre-school through middle-school kids.

The book giveaway started six years ago by the State Street Civic Association – local merchants, churches and residents – an offshoot of Julia Burney Witherspoon's well known Cops N Kids program. In its first year, 500 children received books.

Last year, 1,500 kids showed up.

This year, says Jim Eastman of Merchants Moving, 2,000 kids are expected. Eastman's eyes light up as he takes a visitor through a massive storage room. “Racine Police and members of the Milwaukee FBI office will be at tables, here,” he points to one wall, “autographing books for the kids. Remember, Julia Burney started this program out of the trunk of her squad car, handing books to kids to help them learn to appreciate and respect the police.”

“Here," he says, pointing to another wall, "we'll have tables for the United Way, the Health Care Network, the Racine Fire Department, the Public Library – all with information for the kids and their parents. There'll also be music from church choirs, and volunteers from the Junior League, the Volunteer Center and different agencies. This thing has just grown and blossomed. Racine Unified is distributing 11,000 fliers to kids this week, sending information about the book giveaway home.

“And over here, volunteers will gift-wrap books for the kids, since many will be taking some to give as gifts for their brothers and sisters.” Eastman pauses, then launches into what is obviously one of his favorite stories – he has a slew of 'em – from a past book giveaway:

“Mary Hauch asked one little boy who brought a book to be gift-wrapped, 'And who's this book for? Your grandpa, your brother?' 'No,' the kid replied, 'It's for me. I've never gotten a wrapped present.'”

In another corner, parents will be able to run their kids through Safe Assured ID, a child identification program of the Racine Police Athletic Association. The kids are photographed, fingerprinted and videotaped ... all in case a parent ever needs certain identification to help located a missing child. This will be the third year Safe Assured ID is offered at the book giveaway.

Eastman says $3,700 was raised for the Safe Assured ID program without even a single phone call. “I got $1,000 from the Rotary Founders Club, $500 from the Kiwanis Club, more from a couple of companies. Zap, the money was raised.”

Caron Butler, Racine's own NBA star (whose English teacher at Racine's Middle School Academy was Bonnie Eastman, Jim's wife) has donated several hundred sweatshirts (one presumes they're Washington Wizards sweats, but the boxes haven't been opened yet) and several companies have mitten drives under way.

Merchant's involvement with Cops N Kids began long ago, when Officer Burney answered a burglar alarm call at a book warehouse, and asked the owner to donate a few books. He gave her 10,000, someone had to pick them up, and the rest is history: her appearance on Oprah, the Angel Network's furnishing of the Cops N Kids house, her being honored by ABC-TV's Charlie Gibson as Person of the Week in September.

Now Merchant's picks up and stores books from all over. “We picked up 6,000 new children's books, specializing in African-American themes, from CorpCare Distribution this week. They're an organization that distributes clothing in Milwaukee's inner city. Jessica MacPhail, Racine librarian, called them and asked if they had any books. After Julia appeared on Charlie Gibson's program, a large skating rink in Gurnee called, wanting to become involved. We're picking up their books today,” Eastman said.

The book giveaway is the signature program of the State Street Civic Association. Besides Eastman, other prime movers are Ron Frye, of the Racine Lighthouse Ministry, and Keith Evans, pastor of the Greater Mount Eagle Baptist Church. Don't tell the kids, but it's usually Evans in the Santa suit, talking to each of the kids and posing for a picture with each of them to take home.

One final note: If you're an adult, don't bother coming for free books – unless you're accompanied by a child.

Julia Burney Witherspoon and Jim Eastman (Photo by Mary Hauch)


  1. I love this event. My kids have come for several years. It is just really amazing. You can feel the joyful spirit in the room. Volunteers and children alike.

  2. The achievements from Julia Burney-Witherspoon's ideal will dwell in little minds forever.

    "Reading is the joy of living"

    Jerry of CA

  3. Continue to inspire
    the desire
    to raise children's minds
    a little higher!

    Julia Burney-Witherspoon and the state of Wisconsin.
    (Great job by a phenomenal woman)

    Inglewood CA, Fan