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Know Your Madisonian: Reading Project founder wants to give magic of books to all youngsters
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KNOW YOUR MADISONIAN | ROWAN CHILDS

Know Your Madisonian: Reading Project founder wants to give magic of books to all youngsters

From the Know Your Madisonian 2021: Profiles from the Wisconsin State Journal's weekly series series
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Rowan Childs, Madison Reading Project

Having moved around a lot in the first half of her life, books were "something that were always there" for her, says Rowan Childs, founder and executive director of the Madison Reading Project. The nonprofit will soon be moving to a new home base on the South Side. 

For Rowan Childs, books were a precious and magical part of her youth.

Having moved around a lot in the first half of her life, she said books were “something that were always there” for her to rely on.

“I always remember looking at all the pictures, reading the stories and being so curious as to what’s going on outside my own world,” she said. “It was a really large, important part of my childhood, and when I had my own kids, similarly I wanted to give them the opportunity to have all kinds of books in our home.”

But she always knew there were people who weren’t able to have the same opportunities, so she set off to figure out what she could do to help other children in the community.

This eventually led Childs, now 44, to start the Madison Reading Project in 2014. The nonprofit, of which she is founder and executive director, helps provide books to children mainly in Dane County, as well as some throughout Wisconsin, with the help of its employees, volunteers and community partners.

It started off small as a pilot program for the first year or so, and Childs, with the help of the project’s only partner at the time, the Salvation Army, was able to give books to about 30 children who attended the Salvation Army’s afterschool program.

When the program became an official nonprofit, donated books started pouring in, and Childs’ basement was quickly filled with boxes of books. Fast forward to the present, the Madison Reading Project still takes book donations through book drives and drop-offs at its book center, but other ways to contribute are giving monetary donations online or by purchasing new books from the nonprofit’s Wish Lists that Childs said are high-need and highly requested by youngsters.

Childs said 2020 was not easy, but the nonprofit was able to continue its work in promoting literacy among children. More than 31,000 books were donated to the Madison Reading Project last year, and the nonprofit was also able to purchase some 43,000 new books, ultimately providing 70,000-plus books to more than 31,000 children.

“When I look at Madison Reading Project now, I was definitely not thinking it would be so big when I first started,” Childs said. “It was just something I was very passionate about, and I know how important literacy and reading is. It’s crucial throughout your life, from childhood to adulthood.”

She is now looking ahead to the rest of the new year as the nonprofit is moving to a new home base with more space and better functionality. Childs is hoping for a grand opening this May.

In June, Childs started working for the village of Mount Horeb as its economic development director. She has lived in Mount Horeb for more than 10 years with her husband, a native Wisconsinite, and their two children. Before that, Childs and her family lived in Madison for about five years.

Born in England, Childs moved to Germany and Chicago with her family, then to Iowa and New York City on her own, before coming to Wisconsin nearly 20 years ago.

What was it like getting the Madison Reading Project up and running?

The first year or so was really trying to figure things out, like what works, what doesn’t work, what do kids want and need. At the same time, when I started the nonprofit, it was about being able to provide some of those books upfront but then also being able to continue to do so. But when people heard about me giving books, people just started dropping off books at my doorstep. Suddenly, it was this whole other arm. It appears that many people would like books and need books but don’t have them, and then there are lots of people who have books and would like to donate them.

How did COVID-19 affect operations?

Normally our team would take in a lot of books during the year that are donated, and we were slowly increasing the amount of books we were purchasing. But with COVID, we froze for nearly three months people donating books to us because we were concerned for health reasons. Similarly to libraries, we were unsure we wanted our staff to be handling those books or vice versa. So we fundraised to purchase brand new books because we quickly ran out of our existing stock of books. We were just getting so many requests from community groups and schools. We did have to change our business model quite a bit last year in order to accommodate purchasing thousands more new books and then also figuring out how to get those out in a safe way. Even once we allowed people to donate books from home, it was down considerably compared to prior years, I think in large part due to COVID and the concern surrounding that.

How are you hoping to grow and keep improving?

I feel like we’ve changed and learned a lot every single year. For example, last year, we were able to purchase the very specific types of books we needed. So we do see us continuing to fundraise and purchase new books. We will still continue to take book donations, but the efficiency of being able to get very specific with the types of books we’re giving out instead of hoping that those types of books are being donated, such as books that are brand new, that are very current and topical, in Spanish, graphic novels, or very specific to certain languages and cultures. We’re going to look to expand on that not just for this year but for many years forward.


Know Your Madisonian 2020: a collection of profiles from our weekly series

Know Your Madisonian 2020: a collection of profiles from our weekly series

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I feel like we've changed and learned a lot every single year.

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