Why An Illinois Project Is Building Bookcases As A Foundation Of Child Literacy

Jan 8, 2020


Every year, the DeKalb/Sycamore Bookcase Project makes 50 bookcases for 50 children, each case complete with a metal plate engraved with the child’s name. 



The project is now in its ninth year. Former DeKalb Mayor John Rey started the effort. And if you ask him where he got the idea? He says he read about it. 


There was a profile in a weekend edition of the DeKalb Daily Chronicle about a bookcase project in Arkansas. He sorted through a stack of paper, before finding and holding up his cutout of that original article. 


He said, “The more I thought about that, the more I thought I could relate to that project.” 


He reached out and got their permission to start his own in Illinois. 

The machine drills holes in what will be the side-panel of a bookcase.
Credit Peter Medlin


Rey wanted to do more volunteering and could relate to the literacy project because his wife was a teacher and his mom worked in schools.


“Education has been in my mind forever,” he said. “So the educational aspect of literacy was something that I could see giving back to the community and sort of melded those two.”


They partner with Two Rivers Head Start in Sycamore for the 50 children who receive bookcases. Two Rivers provides childcare and services for kids up to five years old. 


“I talked to a number of educators in daycare centers, everyone pointed me to Two Rivers Head Start as the neediest of the needy children,” said Rey.


In that sense, Rey also sees the project as a boon for equity, to make sure kids who have needs are given a foundation for language and literacy. 


“Children that are not prepared for kindergarten, by fifth grade the gap even grows larger,” he said. “If the children aren't coming to school with reading readiness in kindergarten they have become even more dramatic.”


So the bookcases aren’t built and delivered empty. They also get thousands of book donations so they can fill the shelves and make sure each child gets a good mix of age-appropriate titles to take home. 


The group Rey started nine years ago now includes around 25 volunteers. Rey says he loves seeing people in the community helping out from a cross section of careers and backgrounds. 


They assist with anything from fundraising to building the bookcases. 


Jim Worrell is the construction coordinator of the project. He doesn’t have a typical home woodshop. A high tech CNC or computer-controlled cutting machine that uses software to arrange and cut each piece of the cases perfect. 


“So the first thing it's going to do is it's going to go through and drill all the holes,” he said.


Worrell starts cutting just after Christmas every year and says his small team of workers put on the finishing touches by early March. 


He’s retired and says he felt like this was a way he could utilize his specific skills to give back. He was a mechanical designer for decades, so he can’t help but approach the 50 cases with a mass production mindset. 


A finished bookcase!
Credit Photo courtesy of John Rey

But Worrell says it gets much more personal once they get to go to the banquet later in the spring. That’s where they get to see the parents and their kids handed the bookcases with their names on them. 


“The joy comes in the end when you see the stars in their eyes,” said Worrell. 


Rey echoed that. 


“You can tell that it's really a meaningful ceremony to them,” he said.


While they usually create 50 cases every year, they’ve already had to have a few extra this year. 


That’s because they found out several children lost their bookcases during the fire at the St. Albans Green apartment complex. It burned upward of 40 apartments last summer.


Rey says they’ve already given them the cases with new engraved nameplates and some books.


“We gave them a starter set and then our intent is to possibly replenish those with the collection cycle,” said Rey.


He says he hopes they can help inspire others to start their own. The bookcase project has spread to 11 states and they hope one day to bring bookcases to kids in all 50.  


There are several spots around the DeKalb area where you can donate books to the project. They have drop-off sites at the DeKalb Public Library, Founders Memorial Library at Northern Illinois University and Oak Crest Retirement Center.