Girls Scouts of Southern Arizona volunteers stock Blue Book House Project bookshelves with free books for children and their families.

Every child knows that red means stop and green means go; and now, thanks to hundreds of volunteers and supporters of a local nonprofit, blue means books for many Tucson kids.

“When I go to the sites where I deliver and the children see me wheel in my cart with books, they are right behind me waiting to pick out a book from the blue bookshelf, so this is definitely used by the community. The children and their parents know the books will be replenished if the shelves are empty and this is important so they can build a library of their own at home,” said Kathy Naylor, who began volunteering with the Blue Book House Project through Make Way for Books about four years ago.

The Blue Book House Project offers new and gently used books in waiting rooms of almost 70 social-service agencies, medical clinics and other community locations in Southern Arizona. Children can enjoy the books while waiting and then take them home for free. Last year the program gifted more than 19,000 books to children; one of the most popular locations was the Pima County Juvenile Court Center.

The books, which are housed on blue bookshelves built by volunteers, are collected through donations and book drives spearheaded by individuals, schools, professional groups, clubs and community organizations.

The innovative project — like all programs implemented by Make Way for Books — evolved in response to specific needs in the community, said Jenny Volpe, CEO of Make Way for Books.

“We were doing programming at a Women’s, Infants and Children Clinic for new mothers, and that is what gave us the idea. There are so many families in need who spend so much time waiting with their children for appointments at these clinics and other social-service agencies and we decided this was a way to get more books into their hands,” said Volpe.

Volpe emphasized that the development of home libraries for low-income families who might not otherwise have access to books is the ultimate goal of the program.

She cited a 20-year study by the Australian National University published in 2005, “Scholarly Culture and Educational Success in 27 Nations,” that found access to books in homes affects a child’s educational attainment as much as the education level of parents.

“Basically it is the number of books that a family has in their home that matters. ... The best starting point is just to give kids access to books,” said Volpe.

She is optimistic that access to books will combat Tucson’s status as a “book desert,” defined by Susan B. Neuman, New York University Steinhardt professor of childhood and literacy education, as “neighborhoods in which a lack of age-appropriate reading materials are available.” This shortage of books makes it difficult for families to model reading habits and engage in shared reading, providing a barrier to development of fundamental literacy skills necessary for success in all subjects, including science and math.

The Colorado-based group Unite for Literacy found that only 26% of homes in Pima County house more than 100 books.

“We live in a real desert and we live in a book desert as well, so any strategy that gives families books in Pima County is very needed,” Volpe said.

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Strategies utilized by the Blue Book House Project and other Make Way for Books programs offer numerous platforms for prospective volunteers to help more than 30,000 children and families each year, Volpe said.

Opportunities range from building blue bookshelves — various Rotary Clubs of Tucson and troops with the Boys Scouts of America Catalina Council and Girls Scouts of Southern Arizona are among those who have built and continuously stock shelves at several locations — to inspecting, cleaning and packing boxes of used books, and delivering the books on a monthly basis. People are also needed to organize book drives — or even to collect and donate books from their own homes.

“Some of our biggest supporters are the schools, including middle schools. Kids really get into the book drives; it is basically kids helping kids,” said Volpe.

Other programs use story-time volunteers to read books and share puppets and songs with toddlers and young children in preschools, child-care centers and waiting rooms of social-service agencies.

Story-time volunteers can also work through the Neighborhood School Readiness model, which was implemented in 2014 to provide literacy opportunities for children from birth to age 5. Based on a sample of TUSD students, studies have shown that 75 percent of the children in the programs enter kindergarten, first and second grade at or above the benchmark for reading skills.

“We bring families with young children to neighborhood elementary schools and work with them every week. Many of these families can’t afford to send their kids to preschool, so the parents come in with them and get free books, and the kids are developing literacy skills and social/emotional skills by interacting with other kids. We are thrilled to have developed this partnership with school districts that opens so many doors for these children,” said Volpe.