Bookem Volunteers sorting and packing donated books

2021 Kickball for a Cause Supports Book’Em 

Jaime Filipek Kickball for a Cause

2021 Kickball for a Cause donations are supporting Book’Em and their mission to improve the quality of life for incarcerated people in Pennsylvania by providing free access to educational materials, books, and resources. 

Meet Book’Em

Book’Em is an all-volunteer-run project of the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood. Book’Em, founded in 2000, learned from well-established books-to-prisoners programs and established connections with correctional institutions and jails in Pennsylvania to send free books. 

Pennsylvania is one of the states with the highest incarceration rates, which makes Book’Em a valuable free educational resource for incarcerated people. With generous public support, many of the books Book’Em receives are donated as well as acquired through book drives in collaboration with local organizations and businesses. Book’Em established book donation guidelines to improve the book collection process and ensure they send good-quality books that incarcerated people want to read. The most popular book topics include business and entrepreneurship, trade how-tos, and real estate, which help people think ahead about their future after release.

Today, Book’Em primarily serves 35 state correctional institutions and periodically sends books to those living in federal and county prisons in Pennsylvania. Book’Em is currently working with the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board to get a system set up for sending books to the Allegheny County Jail which will strengthen the organization’s local impact.

How Book’Em Works

“Our work is not just about getting books in people’s hands,” says Jodi Lincoln, the Co-Chair of Book’Em. “When Book’Em volunteers send packages of books to incarcerated people, it builds a connection to the outside world and sends a caring message to those who often feel isolated and uncared for.” This is why Book’Em and many programs like it in the United States don’t just send books to the prison library. It is not just about access to books and resources, but more about extending caring one-on-one interactions. 

Incarcerated people can write to Book’Em directly to request books. Book’Em gets hundreds of letters a week from new people and requests from regulars. During a packing session, volunteers read the letters asking for genre-specific books, books by specific authors, or a general list of favorite books. Then, based on the letter, the volunteers go through the Book’Em library to find three to four books that fit what people are looking for or for books closest to the request. Many letters request reference books like dictionaries and non-fiction books within categories like legal, business, history, and how-to.

People sometimes write notes to Book’Em along with their book requests, like “Thank you for the books you sent last time, I love them,” and sometimes they share life stories or drawings. For Jodi and the Book’Em volunteers, these personal notes and stories reinforce what they do is significantly impacting people’s lives.

Each month, Book’Em serves approximately 200 incarcerated people across 35 State and Federal prisons sending an average of 500 pieces of reading material. Since 2000, Book’Em has served more than 40,000 incarcerated people throughout Pennsylvania. 

Why We’re Important to Young Pittsburgh

Book’Em is a very accessible and fun volunteer opportunity for young Pittsburghers. It is a way for young people to engage with their community, meet new friends, and start to think about the criminal justice system in our county and beyond. The Book’Em hands-on experience is a harm reduction and direct way to make a positive difference in someone’s life with books.  

Get Involved

Funds from PUMP’s Kickball for a Cause will support Book’Em in many ways, including  helping them move to the Spartan Community Center of Hazelwood. The funds will help to develop the new space, and support direct program costs such as the postage to mail books and the purchase of popular books that don’t get donated as frequently as requested.

You can learn more about Book ‘Em at the PUMP Kickball for a Cause event where they will be holding a book drive. In particular, they are in need of fitness-related books.

If you can’t attend this year’s event, you can still make a donation. Your contributions can make a critical impact on incarcerated people’s lives by helping to reduce isolation and meet needs such as learning job skills, supporting personal growth, and accessing resources.

There are many ways to get involved with Book’Em, including:

  • Volunteer during a packing session. Book’Em is now doing pack sessions with a maximum of five people (registration required). This policy makes sure everyone can maintain social distancing and allows for additional packing sessions. You can also volunteer to help out with the back-end operations like fundraising or running a book drive.
  • Volunteer to help Book’Em move to Spartan Community Center of Hazelwood in August and September. Volunteers will set up shelving, drive books to the new location, and help organize the space.
  • Donate books and money to support Book’Em. As little as $5, allows Book ‘Em to send three books to an incarcerated person. 
  • Buy a book during one of Book’Em book sales. Book’Em sometimes gets good-quality novels and books that they can’t send out or have too many copies of. The proceeds from book sales support Book ‘Ems packing and mailing operations.

Visit the Book’Em website to find more ways to get involved and follow them on Facebook and Twitter for more information and upcoming events. You can also email Book’Em to sign up for the email list and get Book’Em information in your inbox.