This New Jersey family plans to tour the East Coast and give out free books to promote childhood literacy

Kaila Boulware Sykes and her husband, Raymond, met when they were students at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. “Throughout our relationship, we’ve always done community service,” Sykes told CNN.

When her family was discriminated against at a local bookstore, she knew it was another opportunity to expand their community service work.

In 2021, the couple, who are black, visited a bookstore in Ocean County, New Jersey, with their son, Truth, now 2. “We took him there because they had hundreds of thousands of pounds,” Sykes said. “We wanted to give our son the experience of being in a literary playground.”

But in the bookstore, Sykes said: ‘We weren’t welcome, people were staring at us and whispering,’ she said. “We were frustrated, we were a little upset.”

The experience inspired Sykes and her husband to start their own bookstore, “where everyone feels welcome.” Four weeks later, in June 2021, the Hidden Gems Literary Emporium, a non-profit donation-based bookstore, opened its doors. More than 500 people attended, Sykes said.

It was “our first sign that we were doing something important that the community needed”.

Since then, they’ve given away over 15,000 free books at their events. And now Sykes is raising money on GoFundMe to buy and refurbish an RV at his own custom mobile bookstore. The family plans to travel from New Jersey to Florida, giving away 1,000 free books along the way. It’s the second iteration of their free book tour, after they took a similar trip last year in their Chevy minivan.

“It’s a cool way to spread love, to spread smiles, to spread joy, to spread our theme of making reading exciting for people of all ages,” she said.

The book tour is part of Hidden Gems’ larger goal of promoting children’s literacy, Sykes said — a project that has become even more crucial as reading scores have plummeted during the pandemic, according to a report. Northwest Evaluation Association analysis.

So far, Hidden Gems has received a total of £40,000 in donations, Sykes said. They receive donations from organizations and individuals, as well as some authors who donate their books. They sell gently used books from their storefront in New Brunswick in addition to giving away free books at community events.

“The amount of community support we’ve received from this has literally been overwhelming, in a great way,” Sykes said. “People from all over the world, as far away as Australia, the Netherlands, Ghana, have supported our effort by donating books or sending monetary donations.”

“It’s truly amazing, the impact that can literally be on an entire generation if we all come together and participate,” she said.

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