The Cara McCollum Birthday Book Project, named in memory of its late founder, is a nonprofit organization well known to many public-school children across the state, as it provides them with an important gift each year on their birthday: the gift of reading.
The program provided more than 10,000 books to children in need this school year, according to program organizers, and continues to grow as communities realize the need to support young minds and imaginations with the gift of literacy.
But the story of the Cara McCollum Birthday Book Project dates back farther than the past school year, or even the past ten years since the program was founded, in a small town where a young girl who loved reading decided that, more than anything, she wanted to help others.
At an early age, Cara McCollum, a native of Forrest City, had a passion for helping those in need which only grew with time.
“I know it’s not a lot, but I want to help the children,” said an 8-year-old Cara when she donated a quarter, all she had at the time, during a church function raising awareness for the Methodist Children’s Home.
Cara’s mother, Maureen McCollum, runs the St. Francis County branch of the Birthday Book Project, which was initially founded in September 2008.
Maureen said her daughter’s philanthropy manifested in many different ways as she grew older. “Cara always thought about those less fortunate than herself. She always had such a philanthropic heart. She didn’t just want to support a cause, she wanted to make a difference.”
According to her mother, Cara’s charitable activism was no passing phase. She jumped into as many causes as she could, starting by selling dog biscuits to raise funds for her local humane society, founding a club called P.A.L.S. (Pet and Animal Lovers Society) and even going to the local city council to try and make changes.
“She was 10 at the time,” Maureen said, laughing. “She always thought she could be doing more. She told me she needed to make changes for the better. She truly wanted to change this world we live in and there was no stopping her. Her father [Rick McCollum] and I might have paved the way for her, but it was her tremendous drive and ambition that got her there.”
When she was older, Cara became involved in a local nonprofit organization called SFC Elves, which ran the local Toys for Tots program, where she first noticed that reading, an activity that was very important to her, was something others in her hometown lacked access to.
Maureen explained, while Cara was privileged to have access to books and education and the chance to develop a love and appreciation for reading and learning, she didn’t take her privileges for granted, seeing almost daily how poverty and low literacy rates can affect a small community.
“Rick always told our children they could go any college they were ‘big enough’ to get into, and Cara took that to heart, taking music and piano and dance and art lessons, and going to educational camps all over the United States during the summers. She eventually graduated as valedictorian of her Forrest City High School class in 2010, and was accepted into Harvard and Princeton. But having gone to school in a district where poverty is so prevalent, Cara saw the effect of educational indifference in kids every day,” said Maureen.
“Her own achievements began with a love of reading. She said books had taken her around the world from Sierra Leone with child soldiers to California with Dust Bowl Okies,” she said. “Her hope with this book project was to reach children at an early age and instill in them a love of reading and learning as deep as her own. Reading wasn’t a selfish pursuit for her. She began a monthly story time at the local Boys and Girls Club and donated more than 1,000 books to the children’s library.
“Cara never felt our small home town was enough for her, so she was constantly thinking of ways to supplement her time and education,” Maureen added. “She wanted to experience everything and be the best at doing it, so we had a saying here at home, ‘bloom where you are planted.’ That’s exactly what Cara did and it’s what she wanted for others, as well.”
Maureen explained, “The Birthday Book Project started by sending books to the 5- to 10-year-olds who participated in the local Toys for Tots program. They were gift wrapped and mailed to the children on their birthdays. After getting many books returned due to changes in addresses, we began delivering directly to the schools, which eliminated the cost of postage and insured the child actually received the book. We started with kindergarten through third grade in one elementary school in 2008, and now we are delivering books to 18 different Title I schools across the state of Arkansas.”
Like Cara, the Birthday Book Project may have called Arkansas home, but it was bound for greater things, and followed her to New Jersey, where she began her college career at Princeton University. It wasn’t long before her philanthropic ambition began to grow once again.
“While she was attending Princeton, Cara began competing in pageants as another way to draw attention to this program. In 2013, she was crowned Miss New Jersey and took a year-long leave from school to represent the state in the 2014 Miss America Pageant. Her platform was, of course, ‘Giving the Gift of Reading,’ and she used her newfound voice to reach out to as many people as possible,” said Maureen.
During her reign as Miss New Jersey, Cara did just that, and was named New Jersey Library Champion of the Year as well as a Daily Points of Light winner for her advocacy of youth literacy.
Following her time as Miss New Jersey, Cara returned to school and earned her degree in English from Princeton in 2015 and a position as lead anchor at the upstart news broadcast SNJ Today, where she worked until her untimely death due to a car accident in February of 2016.
But the reach of the Cara McCollum Birthday Book Project continues to expand as dedicated volunteers, including Cara’s family and friends, work to share Cara’s own passion for reading with every child who receives one of the gift-wrapped books meant just for them.
“Following Cara’s death, a local flower shop in Forrest City began taking donations for the Birthday Book Project in exchange for a bright blue ribbon. They chose the color because it represented emotional healing. There was an enormous response from our community — enough to create an endowment in Cara’s memory through the Arkansas Community Foundation that will support the program and give back to the community forever,” said Maureen.
Long-time program volunteer, Halle Foust, a 17-year-old high school senior, has been volunteering with the program since seventh grade, when she was asked to step in and fill the shoes of Cara, who had gone away to school, and other volunteers who were graduating school or had moved away.
“I started volunteering simply because my mom and Maureen asked me to. Others were moving or graduating, so I stepped into their shoes,” said Halle, explaining she quickly found how meaningful working with the program could be. “I continue to volunteer because I love spending time with Mrs. Maureen, or Mo as I call her, and because of the smiles on the kids’ faces when they get their book. I can’t put that feeling into words. It reminds me why I volunteer, not for me, but for those cute kids! Since I have been involved the project has grown tremendously. We went from working upstairs and sharing an office space in the [St. Francis County] museum with about five shelves and one little desk, to having our own office with about 15 shelves and even more storage space for all of the books.
“The most rewarding part of working with this project,” she added, “is realizing that this isn’t just about the people that currently volunteer.”
Along with putting in weekly volunteer hours sorting, wrapping and delivering books, Halle also works to recruit volunteers for the ever-growing program.
“We recruit new volunteers by speaking at local youth groups and other organizations. I have personally recruited volunteers from my friend group and by word of mouth,” she said.
Halle, like most who knew Cara, said she realizes that Cara both dreamed big and planned big, and said she is positive the program has the support from, not just her own community, but communities around the state and in other parts of the country, to become what Cara envisioned.
“It is Cara’s legacy, and I am honored to help continue that on,” she said. “Cara had some pretty big plans for this project so I don’t think that the project is what she dreamed it would be quite yet, but I know for sure that it will continue to grow to fit what Cara had in mind.”
Given the outpouring of support that has allowed the program to expand in recent years, Maureen explained how the program works today to provide books in the Delta area, as well as other areas in the state where such programs are needed.
“The reality for children growing up in low-income families is that books are scarce. We believe that Cara McCollum’s Birthday Book Project is tackling the single biggest barrier to the development of literacy: Access to books. Cara believed that reading is crucial to a child’s success, both in school and in life. She loved putting books in the hands of children — and what better day than their birthday,” said Maureen.
She said each book is still gift-wrapped and enclosed with a personal message to the child wishing them a “Happy Birthday” and letting them know that the McCollum family and program volunteers hope they will come to enjoy the magic of reading.
The books are hand-delivered to the schools, and each child is recognized by their school councilor on their birthday when they receive their book. Not only does the cardinal branch of the program continue the core mission which started with Cara, but it now supports other start-up branches of the program through their first year.
According to Maureen, the process starts with locating a Title I school and deciding which age group to serve. “We focus on kindergarten through fifth grade in our own local program.”
Program organizers can then contact the school’s administration and request a roster of students including name, date of birth, grade, and gender to be sent in the form of an Excel file (or CSV) to firstname.lastname@example.org. The file is then included in a master database used for printing the personalized gift labels.
“We will fund the first academic year, with the expectation that the local community of that branch will provide support in the future. We print the personalized labels, provide age-appropriate books and supply packaging materials,” said Maureen. “We are happy to share fundraising ideas and previous grant applications. For communities that want to organize their own 501(c)(3) organization, we will provide copies of our organizing documents and assistance with the IRS tax exempt application process.”
Maureen said she and other program organizers are also excited to share a new sponsorship plan for the 2018-19 school year.
According to the sponsorship plan, “The CMBBP [Cara McCollum Birthday Book Project], a 501c3 organization, will provide each sponsor with a copy of the IRS designation letter and an annual receipt for sponsorship donation.
“Each sponsor will be given an opportunity to designate a school for sponsorship. Sponsorships will be on first request opportunity for designation.
“Each sponsor will pay an amount equal to $2.00 per registered student for the chosen school. This amount is reflective of the approximate out of pocket cost to the CMBBP for each book, on average, inclusive of book cost, and packaging for delivery to the child, etc. (This fee may be paid as needed for the spring 2018 semester upon commitment and then for 2018-2019 year in September 2018.)
“Each book delivered to that school will have a label stating the book is provided by the CMBBP sponsored by the sponsor with the logos of both CMBBP and the sponsor. The sponsor will pay a fee equal to the cost of the labels anticipated for sufficient books for the 2018 spring semester and the 2018-19 school years which will be ordered as soon as possible after commitment. (It is anticipated that the stickers will cost approximately $0.20 /sticker at this time but exact cost cannot be determined until ordered with logo, name of sponsor and volume needed for the time frame.)
“Each school and sponsor will receive framed posters (at least two or more if the sponsor requests) showing the CMBBP for that school is sponsored by the sponsor. The sponsor will pay an additional fee equal to the cost of the framed posters. The posters will be ordered as soon as possible after commitment. (It is anticipated that the posters will cost approximately $10.00/poster at this time but exact cost cannot be determined until ordered with logo, name of sponsor and volume requested.)
“CMBBP will arrange for local media coverage of the sponsorship (i.e. newspaper photograph and/or radio announcement). CMBBP representatives will participate in additional reasonable requests for other publicity upon request CMBBP will offer reasonable opportunities for sponsor members/employees to participate in preparations for and distribution of the books (as and if allowed by the sponsored school).”
For more information on the Cara McCollum Birthday Book Project or starting a new community branch of the program, email email@example.com.