Video games and television haven't completely taken over the minds of America's children. The driver of Bess the Book Bus can attest to that.
"It's always so fascinating to me to see them get as excited as they are over books,'' says Jennifer Frances. The 41-year-old has become the Johnny Appleseed of books, passing them out for free and planting a love of reading in the minds of underprivileged kids across the country.
The Oldsmar resident launched a national tour Sunday for the fourth consecutive year, driving a brand-new donated yellow Mercedes van stocked with books for kids from preschool through high school. She and a volunteer, David Fain, plan to cover at least 26 cities in three months, driving to such far-flung states as Maine, Oregon and Arizona.
They'll stop at schools, YMCAs, Boys & Girls Clubs and family service centers in low-income areas. At many places, a mobile eye clinic from two of Frances' sponsors, Transitions Lenses and Vision Service Provider insurance, will give free eye exams and, if necessary, eyeglasses.
Plenty of other stops will be unplanned. Frances calls it "incidental outreach,'' which means "we hear there's a need somewhere and decide to take a right.''
Crowd sizes vary greatly. At some events, 30 or 40 kids may step aboard. At others, the book bus is swamped by thousands — 8,000 kids in two days in New York City's Harlem last year, for example.
Between 200 and 300 youngsters turned out for a book giveaway at the Bob Gilbertson Central City Family YMCA in Tampa the day before the book bus left for the national tour. The little ones were the most excited, reports Desmond Garcia, the Y's membership director. They were lining up to get their free books.
"A lot of the kids, they don't have the opportunity to have a book of their own,'' he says. Parents were asking when the book bus would be back.
Frances says she often sees kids dance with excitement.
"What you'll see with kids a lot is how proud they are of that. They own it and they're readers, and they're defining themselves as readers.''
Frances, who was working as a property manager at a Davis Islands apartment building, began her charity work in 2003, delivering books around the Tampa Bay area in an old Volkswagen bus one day a week. Eventually she cashed in her 401(k), appealed to sponsors and started doing it full time.
"I was at a point in my life where I wasn't unhappy, but I wasn't happy. I had all the things that I thought I should have at that age, and I was really headed toward what this country's idea of success is, yet it just felt empty to me, like something was missing. That's why I started the bus.''
A childhood memory inspired it all. When Frances was a little girl, her grandmother — called Nana Bess — would take her to town every week to pick out a new book, then read it to her when they got home. So she named the bus in her honor.
The charity has nearly gone broke a few times, Frances says, and each time a sponsor has come through. She seeks donations of books and gift cards for food and motel stays from the public, but she has been able to keep rolling mainly through the help of past and current sponsors, among them SuperMedia, Citgo, Mercedes-Benz, Townsend Press and Capstone Press. Others include Inkwood Books, Publix, Target and Levi's.
"Over the years, I've become motivated a lot — and I'd like to say this more nicely than it is — but by anger,''she says.
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She sees shocking conditions on the national trips. She talks about Third World poverty in the Mississippi Delta, where she handed 14-year-old children the first books they had ever owned.
Fain, 26, who volunteered with AmeriCorps before joining the Bess the Book Bus team, talks of kids going through metal detectors at one school while in a wealthy school across town, everybody has an iPad.
"It's hard to imagine this is all the same country,'' he says.
Frances likes watching the kids' reactions on the bus, listening to them talk to one another about books and characters.
Whether they're from the Navajo Nation in Arizona or the South Side of Chicago, kids love the same things, she says. Teenagers everywhere consume dystopian fiction, books like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The little ones often like nonfiction. Capstone Press produces nonfiction books covering "strange stuff, like how rubber works,'' she says. "But kids were loving it.''
Kids still love to watch TV and play video games — that's just their nature, Frances notes.
"But when you open a book and you're able to escape inside your own mind and go somewhere that you could otherwise probably never go … there's just a transformation I think that happens for a child there that doesn't happen any other way.'’
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.