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Conversations with Jennifer Frances

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jennifer Frances.

Hi Jennifer, thanks for sharing your story with us. To start, maybe you can tell our readers some of your backstories.
Bess the Book Bus was an idea that came to me in October 2002. I was feeling unfulfilled in my job and personal life and felt the pull to do more with my life. I started looking for places to volunteer thinking that giving back would help me feel more fulfilled. When I couldn’t find a fit after a few weeks of searching, I started journaling. I made brainstorming lists, lists of what I thought was missing in our community, and what I thought I had to give.

This went on for weeks. There were a lot of sleepless nights. On October 14, 2002, during a sleepless night, the idea finally came to me (pictures attached). I call it the pull of the moon because it came in so clearly that this is what I needed to do. I was finally able to go to sleep and woke up so incredibly refreshed. I knew the bus would be named after my Nana Bess, who was instrumental in my early love for reading. My two-year-old cousin couldn’t say Bess and called here Nana Bus.

Thus the name Bess the Book Bus was born. It took about a year to research, plan, find the first bus- a 1972 VW Bus, cash in my 401k and get started. We visited our first school – Head Start at Lanier Elem. in Tampa in 2004 and received our 501 c 3 status in March 2005. It has been quite a ride since then. While most of our time is spent here in Tampa Bay, we also travel nationwide.

Our first nationwide tour was in 2009. Since then we have been to all 48 contiguous states. This year during the final part of our nationwide trip in September, we will give away our millionth book. We will then come home to celebrate that and our 20th birthday. We have been fortunate to have wonderful partners, donors, and sponsors here in Tampa and nationwide.

We feel extremely fortunate to be born and based in Tampa. Though it is a big city, we have. always been supported in a way that feels more like a small community. It is a place where people and organizations work together to affect change and we are grateful to be a part of this community.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
It has definitely not been a smooth road. I don’t think it ever is while running a business. Starting, building, and funding a nonprofit is a continuous challenge. Funding is an ongoing challenge, especially now with inflation and uncertainty in the air. Fuel costs have doubled and book acquisition costs have almost tripled for us in the last year.

There are book shortages to contend with. COVID has been another big challenge. At the start of COVID, we really had to dig deep. Our entire model had to be changed to comply with CDC recommendations. I am proud of the way our team was able to adapt our model to continue reaching our most vulnerable communities. Demand grew during 2020 as schools, bookstores, and libraries were closed.

Parents and teachers were contacting us for books and we needed to find a way to safely supply them. Teachers were doing home visits and delivering supplies to their now-learning students. Parents needed resources to help their children succeed at home. We had to find a way and we did. We found a supplier in Reno that could get us to spray sanitizer when there was none to be found.

Teachers that were no longer teaching in-person brought us cans of Lysol and wipes. Partners donated drawstring bags that we could use to distribute the books. We met parents and teachers in parking lots across the Tampa Bay Area. We zoomed into classrooms and did online read-a-louds.

We did drive-through events with community partners and schools. Even though things were so uncertain, our supporters stayed by our side making sure we could keep going. As I mentioned, we have a great network of sponsors, partners, supporters, and volunteers that keep us moving forward even in the most trying times.

Can you tell our readers more about what you do and what you think sets you apart from others?
Sharing the joy of reading with kids is my passion. Oftentimes, reading is presented to students as a chore or a task that has to be completed. We believe it should be presented as a pastime. Something fun.

Our Joy of Reading Pop-Up Book Fairs is centered on just that- the joy that reading can bring through access to and choice of books. These are critical components to building lifelong readers. We build home and classroom libraries in our most vulnerable communities in a way that brings joy into the equation.

I am most proud of the relationships we have built in the last 20 years and the community our team is a part of. It’s not about being set apart from others, it’s about finding a way to work together, to collaborate in a way that improves the community for everyone.

We’re always looking for the lessons that can be learned in any situation, including tragic ones like the Covid-19 crisis. Are there any lessons you’ve learned that you can share?
Yes. That you have to be nimble. You have to be able to step back and reimagine everything. You have to be able to work together with other people in your community.

It has taught us how incredibly important it is to work together sharing ideas and resources. How important it is to have other people cheer you on and that you cheer on.

Pricing:

  • $7 a student will fund a book fair that allows each student to choose two books. Teachers are also able to choose books for their classroom libraries.

Contact Info:

  • Website: www.bessthebookbus.org
  • Instagram: @bessthebookbus
  • Facebook: facebook.com/bessthebookbus
  • Twitter: @BookBess

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