Shawna Hamilton Doster is on a mission to break through the nation’s literacy barrier by putting books into the hands of thousands of needy children. Bringing her legal perspective and passion to one of the country’s oldest literacy advocacy groups, she is helping provide the resources preschoolers and their families need to build a solid foundation for learning.
A native Texan, Hamilton Doster became involved with New York-based Books for Kids nearly a decade ago after working for several years in the Houston-area as an attorney. “I came to New York and saw an opportunity,” she said. “While I was very happy as a litigator, I was looking for something more -- a way to give back while still using my legal skills. I joined the Books for Kids’ board and found that my training in law was a huge asset.”
Dedicated to promoting literacy among all children with a special emphasis on low-income and at-risk preschool-aged children, Books for Kids creates libraries, donates books, and partners with literacy programs to develop the critical early foundation and skills that young children need to be successful in life.
“The libraries ensure that all at-risk children are able to have access to reading programs, brand new books and other educational tools that serve as critical building blocks for early literacy skills,” Hamilton Doster said.
Two years ago, she took over the organization as Executive Director, crediting her University of Houston Law Center degree with making her the right candidate for the position. “My legal education gave me a unique perspective that allowed me to better serve Books for Kids,” she said. “I understand how to protect the entire organization and our Board from a legal standpoint. Whether it be intellectual property, contractual issues or risk management, I am able to see the issues through a clearer lens given my legal training.”
As the Executive Director of Books for Kids, Hamilton Doster oversees its outreach efforts which include transforming unused rooms in childcare centers in low-income neighborhoods into an educational and magical environment filled with beautiful brand new books and learning opportunities for children who may not be afforded the same opportunity otherwise.
Hamilton Doster notes recent statistics illustrate that approximately one out of four children grows up not knowing how to read. Additionally, 80% of preschool and after-school programs serving low-income populations are without age-appropriate books. Children in middle-income neighborhoods enjoy a ratio of 13 books per child. In low-income neighborhoods, the ratio is one age-appropriate book for every 300 children.
“Access to age-appropriate books is a critical and key factor in helping a child succeed in life,” Hamilton Doster said.
Under Hamilton Doster’s tenure as Executive Director, Books for Kids has begun building libraries and promoting literacy on a national scale by partnering with Homewood Suites, a national upscale extended stay hotel brand and ING DIRECT, an online financial institution. In addition, she has worked with celebrities such as Tina Fey and Mario Batali who have also sponsored libraries in New York City.
Each library costs $50,000, which covers the creation of the reading space, books and a year’s worth of program support for the teachers, families and children who will use the location.
“When you think of how many children you’re serving over the years and how desperately needed these resources are, it’s a very tiny investment,” Hamilton Doster said.
To date, Books for Kids has opened 72 libraries stocking approximately 25,000 books and giving away another 5 million. Libraries are primarily located in the New York Tri-State area, but Hamilton Doster has recently opened libraries in Memphis, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Phoenix, Wilmington, Delaware and Irving, Texas.