Celebrities and cosplay. Dungeons, dragons, and dances. Art and craft (of the war and handmade genres). Where would any comic convention be if the thousands of attendees, not to mention creators, never picked up a book, comic or otherwise? The organizers of Phoenix Comicon recognize that getting books into the hands of children is of critical importance, not only to the future of their business, but of society as a whole. And, of course, promoting charitable causes is good publicity. But when Matt Solberg took Kids Need to Read under his wing, it was different:
“Phoenix Comicon supports Kids Need to Read like no other convention supports a charity,” says Denise Gary, Executive Director of KNTR. “None of them come close to doing for their sponsored charities what Phoenix Comicon does. They give us so much–they gave us four booths, at the front of the convention center, they gave us a full-page ad in the programming guide, they gave us the entire ballroom, their art auctions for us, it just goes on and on. And this is our biggest fundraiser of the year. It’s a beautiful thing, and every now and then I just sit back and think, ‘what integrity these people have.’ Most of these conventions–can you tell who their charities are, or what they’re doing for them? Most of the time they have an auction and give them some money–which is very nice. The difference is that one person is doing it because they feel obligated, but the PCC people are saying, ‘we believe in you, and we sincerely want you to do well and to help children, and we know what you’re doing is a good thing.'”
Kids Need to Read provides books to underfunded schools and libraries which serve underprivileged children. “But we’re about so much more than that, Gary says. “We connect children to life through books.” Rather than just donating random books to supported organizations, KNTR carefully selects the collections to meet the demographic of the recipient organization. “We actually use these books as mentors because most of these children don’t receive the kind of mentorship (from) the people who are surrounding them. The (children) sometimes have very difficult lives surrounded by drug abuse, alcoholism, violence. So we try to use our books to show them a way out. Because sometimes books are very rough material–but it’s material that they can relate to. And they want to read it because it’s something that they can understand, but it usually leads them in a positive direction.” KNTR is not a literacy program, per se, but a desperately needed support for programs that focus on teaching reading skills; and KNTR goes beyond such programs by reaching out to older children as well as early learners. The response has been terrific.
“We’re not going to reach every child–we can’t. But we get feedback from teachers or librarians or other literacy program leaders that tell us that children–who kept saying that they would never read–have become book leaders and they’re totally into it,” Gary says. “That is thrilling to me, and it’s just about connecting them to the material, it’s just the right material. And then they get it. One of the things we do that is unusual, too, is that we provide many full sets of series. Because we know that if a child discovers one book in a series, they will continue reading and go through that series–and then they’ll go looking for another series.” KNTR differs from other book donation groups in another way, as well; they donate hundreds of books at a time, rather than a few here and there. “The kids see all of these books, this huge collection, appear and they get curious. Then they talk about to their friends, “…even the boys,” says Gary. “They say ‘yeah, they got new books in the library, and did you read this one?’ And suddenly it became very cool.”
Kids Need to Read is the brainchild of PJ Haarsma, author of The Softwire science fiction series. In an interview with DOOM!, Haarsma said, “Back when the first Softwire came out, I was going around to schools and just seeing how so many schools didn’t have fiction in their library, couldn’t afford to buy new library books.”
Haarsma enlisted the help of his friend, actor Nathan Fillion (Firefly, Castle) and started up KNTR. Fillion recorded excerpts from the books, and the organization started raising funds by selling packages of the books and recordings. The response was overwhelming; Enter Denise Gary. Gary had been part of a Nathan Fillion fan group that had been working with Haarsma to promote the fundraising package. “PJ did not have time
to pursue the legalities and the formation of trying to make it into a business, it was just all time consuming,” said Gary, “so I asked him if I could take it and develop it into this.”
At the beginning, staffed by Fillion fans and Browncoat volunteers, KNTR has grown in to a a full-fledged, non-profit business, with budgets and paid staff and supporters from a host of businesses and organizations. Events and special promotions (including 2011’s Tweet to Read fundraiser) are held year-round, but Phoenix Comicon is KNTR’s heftiest fundraiser.
In 2010, PCC hosted the first “Geek Prom,” hosted by Bookmans Entertainment Exchange. KNTR was trying to come up with a cornerstone event at PCC. Actress Felicia Day (The Guild, Eureka), the unofficial Queen of the Geeks, came up with the idea. That year, about 375 tickets were sold. The 2011 PCC Geek Prom sold out at 1000 tickets. More than $10,000 was raised to support KNTR. And WOWZA! did everyone totally geek out! Check out the video: Geek Prom 2011
KNTR received additional support from Browncoats:Redemption. This amazing fan-made, Joss Whedon-endorsed, sequel to Serenity donates all proceeds to five charities, including Kids Need to Read. The film features a professional cast and includes cameos by Firefly/Serenity cast members Adam Baldwin, Michael Fairman, and Yan and Raphael Feldman. The organization is only authorized to sell the video until September 1, 2011, so if you’d like a copy (and this bigtime Firefly fan highly recommends you see it), order now!
All told, after Geek Prom, a fantastic art auction, a Star Wars bounty hunt game, sales of the KNTR 2012 literacy calendars and more, Kids Need to Read raised over $20,000. Denise Gary sums it all up on KNTR’s blog report of the event:
“There are no words that can adequately express how awe-inspiring Memorial Day weekend was for KNTR at Phoenix Comicon 2011. We were overwhelmed at the outpouring of support we received. The KNTR Geek Prom, sponsored by Bookmans, was over-the-top fun! All in all, Kids Need to Read raised $20,000 during the event. There were so many kind souls who contributed to the success of the weekend and to all of them, we extend our deepest gratitude.”