When Paige and Ashley DeFreitas began their love affair with reading, books were always available in their home. Members of St. Bernard Parish at St. Camillus de Lellis Church in Fitchburg, the twin sisters began to notice, by the time they reached eighth-grade, that not all students were as fortunate as they.
“We became aware that there are many kids who do not have any books in their homes,” said Paige. “When we started high school we looked for ways we could give kids the same opportunity to love reading as we do.”
Their response was to create Up With Books in 2015 (which became a non-profit 501(c)(3) the following year). Their mother, Kim DeFreitas, helped them in their effort.
“They were minors when they started Up With Books,” explained Mrs. DeFreitas, “and I served as the ‘adult.’ I have continued to stay on board and help out while they are in college.”
The sisters are both attending Siena College in Loudonville, N.Y., where their majors are applicable to their work with Up With Books. Ashley, who takes care of the business end of the nonprofit, is in the accounting program, where she will earn a bachelor’s and master’s degree in four years. Paige is an English major with a minor in writing and communication. She takes care of the writing portions, like applying for grants and social media. Their latest initiative is the “Every Summer has a Story” reading program, where 1,000 book bags are being distributed to children of low-income families, to keep them reading throughout the summer. Up With Books seeks to give children from low-income families access to books to prevent them from losing valuable reading skills during the summer.
“Creating a steady supply of new, age-appropriate books has been shown to dramatically increase interest in reading within months,” said Ashley.
Paige added, “Our goal is to encourage and inspire a love of reading and establish life-long learners.”
By providing books for the home, Up With Books hopes to help break the cycle of poverty for these children by keeping them reading, increasing their academic achievement, and leading to better opportunities. Serving Fitchburg, Worcester, Lowell and other Massachusetts communities, Up With Books has quickly grown, connecting with other service organizations such as Catholic Charities and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
“The first year we were only able to give out a few hundred books but it quickly blossomed to where we have given out over 7,000 books this summer alone,” Ashley said. Some of the requests for books have come from out of state, including Florida and Colorado. Support from family and friends (including younger brother Quentin who volunteers his time distributing books) has been key.
“It has also been an incredible experience to see other organizations and how many volunteers are willing to be part of an effort to help others,” Paige said.
An important connection was made through their home parish with the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry run out of St. Joseph Church in Fitchburg.
“Through Ron Maxfield, we partnered with the food pantry to supply books to them,” Mrs. DeFreitas said. “During the summer, we will set up several tables with books to allow the children to select their own books to take home. Up With Books also distributes the book bags starting at the end of May and early June so the children have them once they are out of school. We will continue to do both the tables and book bags through the summer.”
Recipients of the books show their gratitude.
“We receive thank-you letters telling us how much the books are appreciated by the children,” Ashley said. She, Quentin and Paige work the table at the St. Vincent de Paul food pantry on Friday mornings, where they witness first-hand the delight and excitement of the children as they choose their books and fill their bags. Running a non-profit involves a great deal of fund raising. With the help of their mother and friends, Paige and Ashley learned how to apply for grants.
“There was a huge learning curve for that!” Ashley said. “We did a lot of research and took some free online classes on grant writing. We are members of the Massachusetts Non-Profit Network that has a section on grants and their deadlines, which is how we learn about a lot of the grants. The money is used to purchase books and supplies (the book bags, coloring books, etc.).”
Their efforts have secured grant money and sponsorships from the DCU for Kids foundation, Wegmans, Middlesex Savings Bank and ALDI markets.
Fund-raising events include an annual silent auction held each November.
“We have received a lot of donations from both national and local retailers, including dolls from American Girl; a free night at Foxwoods; Disney Hopper passes; and tours of TV stations (WCVB, NECN, and 7 News),” said Paige. “More local places (that donate) are Sneakerama, the Ecotarium, Wachusett Mountain, and Rock Spot climbing. We receive so many generous donations - everything from ski lift tickets to gift cards for dining out.”
Other activities include the Scrip gift card program (where Up With Books receives a portion of the purchase price for every gift card purchased) and the Lowell Spinners baseball team fundraiser on July 20. Up With Books receives a portion of the ticket sales and will have a table with raffles and giveaways.
While Up With Books receives many outright donations from book publishers (among them Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, which has given 3,500 books, and Hachette Book Group, which has given 500), many other books are purchased at deep discounts.
“First Book is one place where the books are free, but you have to pay for shipping, so the cost ends up being around $1 for each book,” Ashley said. “RIF (Reading is Fundamental) had a matching grant program which provided us with books for about $1.50 each. Scholastic Books also provides non-profits with special pricing and often have dollar books available.”
What was it like for two high school students to begin a successful non-profit organization from the ground up?
“At times it was overwhelming,” Paige said, “but then we would see the kids’ reaction when we offer them new books, or the letters that tell how much the kids love their new books, it is all worth it and we know we are doing the right thing and want to continue.”
– For more information, visit the Up With Books website at www.upwithbooks.com. Up With Books accepts personal donations which can be made via their website.