This column visits the faces of those who have benefited from the generous and tireless work of the nonprofits on the Mid Shore. Perhaps unknown to many of us, these individuals have had their lives transformed by the missions of these organizations and are giving back in unique ways to better our world. Amelia Blades Steward has been a freelance writer in our community for more than 20 years and offers a glimpse into the lives of residents on the Mid Shore whom she has met along the way.
What started as a way to get their creative impulses going again has resulted in a national tour delivering books to some of the neediest children in America. Children’s book author/ illustrator, husband/wife duo Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, of Chestertown, will be taking their four children and the family dog on an adventure of a lifetime next school year traveling in a tiny home school bus to visit Title 1 schools in all 50 states and deliver 25,000 free children’s books that the pair has created over the last 16 years.
Their journey began when they left their corporate jobs in Baltimore in 2006 to move into Robbi’s parents’ barn on the Eastern Shore in search of a more balanced and creative life. At first, they created picture books for adults, something they had started doing together before they were married. After that, they created picture books for kids, with Babies Ruin Everything as their first commercial kid’s book through Macmillan Publishing House. Soon, other books followed, including the popular The Real McCoys series, Everywhere, Wonder, and now the Cookie Chronicles series for young readers, ages seven to 12 years old.
The couple soon realized the power of books when they did several school-wide book giveaways in the local Title I schools, which serve children from low-income families, in Kent County where their four children: Alden, Kato, August, and Jasper attend school.
“The results were always the same: kids dive into reading. They start telling their own stories. They gain a sense of heightened possibility. The local impact has been amazing. Now we’re going to do it at the national level,” comments Robbi.
On their “great American road trip” with their kids, ages 13 to 4, for the 2022-2023 school year, the family plans to visit schools and libraries to discuss storytelling and the importance of reading.
“Books have been shown to have a positive impact on reading, academic performance, and language development. But books are often scarce for the kids who need them most,” adds Matthew, who shares that 23 states spend less on public education than they did a decade ago and 51 percent of all public school students come from low-income families.
When not visiting schools, the family will chronicle the country’s incredible cultural and geographic diversity – visiting historical landmarks, hidden treasures, and off-the-beaten-path communities – while sharing their adventures through daily photos, videos, sketches, and live streams.
To help with their journey, the couple is partnering with two national nonprofits and a beloved local arts organization. First Book will help them identify schools where their visits will have the greatest impact. They will also be partnering with the Department of Education at Washington College in their hometown to conduct a major research project on the impact of author visits on creativity and literacy in the public schools they visit. They will use DonorsChoose as their platform for setting up micro-giving campaigns to help teachers in the schools they visit. Finally, the Kent Cultural Alliance will accept tax-deductible donations of $100 and above on their behalf and serve as the project’s fiscal agent.
John Schratwieser, Director of Kent Cultural Alliance (KCA), comments, “This project aligns with KCA in so many ways, but primarily it fits with our goal to support Kent County artists in all disciplines. Matthew and Robbi are artists. They live, create, and sell their work from the Chestertown Arts & Entertainment District (one of 29 in Maryland) and their art shares our common mission of engaging the community. This project, Busload of Books, is just a larger version of something they have been doing for years in the Kent County Public Schools and we’re thrilled to be able to help them expand.”
John continued, “I think this is unique because of their focus on Title 1 Schools, and because of the sheer scope of this journey, to all 50 states! It is also unique to us because they are our friends and neighbors. They are an integral part of the creative community of Kent County – and now they are taking their art and sharing it with children in need all over the country. The KCA is humbled by their efforts and honored to play a small role.”
One of the special aspects of the book giveaways is that the couple is giving away hardcover books. Robbi explains, “The hardcover book also has more beautiful paper and has more beautiful illustrations. There’s something more magical about reading a hardcover book.”
“One principal of one of the schools we visited told the story of a young man who got sent to the office almost every day for disciplinary reasons. And the day after our visit, he asked if he could sit in her office during recess because he wanted to read chapter seven of the book we had given him. That is just one anecdote. And any author who does author visits will tell you this…is if this is impactful, this is a good thing to do,” Matthew adds.
“We also just want to show kids that authors and illustrators are just regular people,” Robbi says.
This winter, the couple is retrofitting a 23-foot school bus for their journey across the country. “We are working with an amazing local contractor named Brian Thompson, who’s overseeing the entirety of the bus conversion process. And ,in fact, it was his idea to acquire a school bus. It’s going to have tiled floors like a school and a bank of old school red lockers, so each family member gets his or her own locker. It’s also going to have a second story on the bus as a pop-up sleeping compartment for the children. It’s going to be very small and very, very cozy,” Matthew explains.
Robbi is also going to paint a mural on the outside of the bus and the couple hopes it will be an emblem of the mission and the joy and the spirit and the excitement of the trip.
According to John, “Every dollar raised is from private funds. There is no state or local funding for this project. Robbi and Matthew are fortunate to have a large, devoted fan club locally and around the country. People heard about what they are doing and wanted to support it.”
To date, the couple has raised the funds to cover trip expenses and renovate the bus, but now needs funding to fill the bus with books to give away. For every $5 donated, supporters can put a hardcover book in the hands of a deserving student or teacher – spurring reading, increasing engagement, and igniting creativity across the country. A $150 donation buys books for an entire classroom; a $300 to $500 donation covers books for an entire grade; and a $2,500 to $5,000 donation brings smiles to an entire school.
“We were astonished, and we remain astonished, and the generosity has blown us away. And it’s clear that this is an issue that fires the imagination and compassion of people. So many people who have donated have said books were important to me,” Matthew comments. “We believe that interventions can actually change the course of someone’s life in an important way. If we can help a handful of kids in each school, it’s worth it. So, it can be a difference-maker.”
The family is going to visit one and a half schools a week and spend the rest of the time visiting what Matthew calls “the most interesting and iconic things about America” while homeschooling their children. He adds, “We hope that students and teachers and librarians will use our trip as an opportunity to keep tabs on what’s happening in America – what are Americans saying and doing outside of the newspaper context, but through the lives of this family that’s traveling around observing asking questions, parenting, eating, exploring, and meeting new people.”
The family hopes the public will follow them on their Facebook and Instagram pages and through video posts they will be making each day. For further information, visit www.gofundme.com/f/robbi-matthews-busload-of-books-tour or https://robbiandmatthew.com/busload-of-books.