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Volunteer Spreads Reading Amid Laundry Suds

A California mom draws on her passion for childhood reading to bring books to kids in need.
Bookshelf at the laundromat, Coin Xpress, in Richmond, California
Bookshelf at the laundromat, Coin Xpress, in Richmond, California

By Anna Sterling

“I remember how much I loved to read as a kid,” said Tana Monteiro. “Just the adventure of reading and going into another world. That’s why I was excited about this whole thing.”

She is now on a mission to bring books to kids who don’t have access to them in her hometown of Richmond, California. With a tough economy and limited transportation making trips to the library prohibitive for many, Monteiro decided she would bring books to people wherever they are – including the laundromat.

While spending time with one of her four sons at Coin Xpress, her local laundromat in Richmond, she noticed the staff would give candy to the kids, but this distraction from the chores only lasted a few minutes. She realized if there was a way to give out books, instead of candy, it would keep the youngsters and their parents occupied as their clothes spun in the machines.

To make that goal a reality, she partnered with the non-profit organization West County Reads and became an essential volunteer in its Take One Leave One program. The laundromat is now one of several locations around the city where bookshelves offer thousands of free books to eager readers, in part due to Monteiro’s passion.

The city is also a food desert, according to Monteiro, with only one grocery store available. The laundromat is in the same shopping vicinity as the grocery store, making it a logical choice to catch a lot of foot traffic. That traffic is translating into big demand. Volunteers find they must return weekly to keep the laundromat’s bookshelves full, with even encyclopedias disappearing.

“I put a whole bunch of filler in there [and thought], no one’s going to take those home,” said Monteiro. “Not anything new or exciting. And they were gone.”

And she’s okay with that.

“It’s amazing,” she said. “It actually showed us everybody really wanted these books. [They’re] really important and they want them in their homes. They need them.”

The Take One Leave One program started in 2010 and it distributes about 10,000 books per year, according to Kevin Hufferd, who heads West County Reads.

They have several drop-off sites for book donations and Hufferd said they’ve developed a steady, organic flow of book donations from community centers, schools, and even dedicated volunteers. The number of bookshelves varies, with five at the moment, and Monteiro is hoping to expand.

Another goal is to make sure the books they distribute represent the kids reading them.

“We’ll buy books that are in Spanish and we’ll buy books that have African-American characters,” Monteiro said. “The kids are always excited to see that and the parents for sure, especially because they’re able to read it to their children.”