Since its creation in 2012, Books Between Kids has operated on a single idea: Every child deserves to be a book owner.

Its simple mission to increase literacy in Houston communities has taken its status from a local organization to a nonprofit with a national reach, even collaborating with iconic philanthropists such as entertainer Dolly Parton.

Kayla Hand

“Houston is a very special city,” said Kayla Hand, executive director of Books Between Kids. “We have a generous philanthropic community” with other nonprofits working to strengthen children’s reading skills. Studies show reading skills are linked to educational achievement and career success.

Based in the Southwest Management District, Books Between Kids is singularly dedicated to placing age-appropriate books into young people’s homes.

“More than 60 percent of low-income families do not have age-appropriate books for their children,” Hand said. “Books Between Kids aims to fill this gap.”

Books Between Kids has distributed over 2.3 million books to more than 500,000 children so far.

The grassroots group began as most community-led initiatives do — with a limited circle of people and an idea.

After noticing the severe lack of access to books in their local elementary school system, Amy Barnes and Sandra Ahlhorn — Hand calls them “passionate moms’’ — began holding book drives at their children’s schools.

Next they began collecting books and distributing them to the schools. In 2012, Books Between Kids was officially launched with a goal of addressing Houston’s books needs on a greater level.

One of its first pivotal launches was Book Celebrations, as in free fairs where each child could take home six free books. Then, Hand said,  “we launched our Community Partners Program after Hurricane Harvey,” in which Books Between Kids partners with literacy organizations to engage with children and their families.

The efforts have garnered national attention, making way for the collaboration with musical star and philanthropist Parton.

By working as a local affiliate of Parton’s international Imagination Library, Books Between Kids is also able to send books directly to children’s homes in mostly low-income portions of the Houston area. The partnership began after Hand, at the suggestion of a local volunteer, contacted Parton’s organization.

Books Between Kids relies heavily on donations to acquire books, but it also looks to volunteers to prepare the books and check their quality.

“Our books are first collected — from a book distributor, an individual giving a donation, a hosted book drive, or a corporate donation. Books are then counted, sorted for quality and content, stickered, boxed by category, and inventoried,” Hand said.

Books Between Kids seeks to expand its service to the community by distributing books in languages other than English.

“We provide as many Spanish books as we can,” Hand said, but for now “we don’t receive a ton through donations.”

Overall, the meticulous book culling process makes sure that each child feels they are receiving a special gift rather than a tattered leftover.

As the number of children who benefit from the organization’s work continues to rise, Hand is pushing for even more growth.

“There have been so many instances of watching kids’ faces light up when they find the book they were looking for,” she said.  “There was one little guy who found the Pete the Cat book he was looking for. He ran up to show me and then started showing me every page. I get great joy out of knowing our programs create a passion for reading.”

— by Caroline Cabe