Terra Hiltner had just moved back to Margate from Baltimore and taken a job as a librarian at Oakcrest High School when she began looking for a local book bank.

“It was a fantastic program,” Hiltner, 38, said of the bank in Maryland where she was able to provide 100 free books a week to local students.

But in Atlantic County, she found none. So she started her own, working with the Boys and Girls Club of Atlantic City in 2014 and another at Oakcrest. Now, she is partnering with the Community FoodBank of New Jersey-Southern Branch for a third book bank in the county.

“I feel like today we have access to more McDonald’s than we have local libraries,” said Hiltner.

She said for low-income people in particular, it might be hard to get to a local library if they don’t have a car. The book banks provide books for free to people in need.

Hiltner said books not only provide an escape for people, they promote imagination and creativity. And they also promote educational achievement.

“It’s fundamental,” she said.

Two years ago, researchers found youth in areas of high poverty had little access to books, dubbing them “book deserts.” In that study conducted by researchers from New York University, the authors linked the decreased access to print materials to what is known as the “summer slide” — when a student’s achievement gains are lost or decline from the previous year.

A 2010 study found children who are given books over the summer perform 35 percent to 40 percent better on reading achievement tests than those without access to books.

“I thought this little nugget of an idea might spark something bigger,” Hiltner said.

Luckily for Hiltner, her neighbor happens to be Renate Taylor, the development officer for the FoodBank’s Southern Branch.

“She really believes in literacy,” Taylor said of Hiltner.

Taylor said she was quickly on board with Hiltner’s idea and opened up space in the Egg Harbor Township warehouse for the books to be placed. Last month, Hiltner and her students donated more than 1,000 books.

Taylor said the book bank is already empty and waiting to be restocked.

“Books are things that people with privilege take for granted,” she said.

Taylor said living in poverty means families have to make sacrifices. Citing local reports on access to food in Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties, Taylor said one in four children in the region is considered “food insecure.”

“If one in four kids (in South Jersey) can’t eat, how are they buying books?” she asked. “That’s why the donation to us is priceless.”

Taylor said in addition to the academic benefits, the books help the young children who come to the FoodBank with their parents pass the time.

“Imagine being a kid and sitting in line at the FoodBank with your mom or dad. You can’t play, you can’t talk, you can’t run around. And people can be here for quite some time waiting,” Taylor said. “As a mom, I know a minute to a child is a week.”

Taylor said the FoodBank is an ideal location for a book bank because of the number of families who receive services there. Every month, the Egg Harbor Township local serves 1,100 families in the immediate area.

Oakcrest student Kaitlyn Scardino has helped Hiltner to promote the book bank through the school, using her film skills to create a promotional video.

“It opened my eyes a lot to the Community FoodBank, and how important it is for reading and for the arts in general,” said Scardino, 17, of Mays Landing. “I think it’s really important to make (books) available for everyone because it’s a really important thing in life.”

Scardino said the bank has even sparked a new interest in reading for her.

Hiltner said she is not sure how the book bank will grow, but she has another 1,000 books waiting to be delivered to the FoodBank this month.

Taylor said the FoodBank also will collect books for the bank. Books must be for the K-12 reading level, and they must be in gently used condition or newer.

For more information, call the FoodBank at 609-383-8843.

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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