As a longtime educator, Shelby Steinhauer knows the path to success in school, and ultimately life, begins inside the pages of a book. Within the pages, the world unfolds – teaching lessons, prompting questions and making the unfamiliar familiar.

It does not take a scientific study (although there are many available) to prove the critical link between literacy and achievement. And the earlier the love of reading develops, the more that child will thrive.

Inside her classrooms, Steinhauer was able to reach students who came her way and instill those lifelong lessons. After transitioning from a high school and middle school French teacher to a paraprofessional this year, her focus is now on expanding that reach to bring books and love of reading to all children, regardless of circumstances.

“I want all children to have access to books, no strings attached,” said Steinhauer, a teacher’s assistant in special education at Alpharetta Elementary. “I want children to also know the joy of passing on their books to someone who will love them.”

Her project began several years ago, with the seed planted by a long-time friend and colleague at Milton High School, Gayley Crockett.

“Gayley mentioned her sister, Melanie Middleton, a kindergarten teacher in Durham (N.C.), had a bookshelf outside her classroom where children from any grade could come by and choose a book — not just to borrow — but to keep,” Steinhauer said. “Gayley suggested we could go to thrift stores and look for some books for the shelf.”

It was more than a love of books and children that tied Steinhauer and Crockett together. Both had suffered profound losses – the death of Crockett’s daughter, Kate, in 2012, from cancer, and the death of Steinhauer’s sister, Natalie Richman, two years later following a long battle with depression.

“Gayley helped me to survive that first year as I struggled with the shock and finality of my sister's death,” recalled Steinhauer, who stayed with the Crockett’s in the year following her sister’s death. “At a time when I couldn’t do much of anything, I somehow thought, well, maybe I can do this.”

They began searching thrift shops and garage sales, collecting gently used books. Steinhauer started book drives in her classes and clubs and the books began coming in.

At first, the books were sent primarily to schools across Durham, filling library shelves then eventually homes where they were treasured. Soon Steinhauer and her small group of volunteers and book lovers were collecting for schools and children in the Atlanta area, as well.

“Somewhere between that day and now, we've been finding the most beautiful children's books – thousands and thousands of books. And somewhere along the way, as each book made its way to a child, I realized I was doing it for Kate. And somewhere farther along the way, I realized it brought me joy,” Steinhauer said.

And that’s how Kids Just Choose Books began, named after Katherine Julia Crockett who inspired Steinhauer.

Gayley Crockett said her daughter, Kate, had a lifelong love of reading. She recalls her daughter as a young child taking her books with her to basketball games when her father, AG, coached at Roswell High School.

“After she majored in English and ended up as a literary agent in New York City, we always joked that she was working in a box of books, as the office was lined with book shelves of free books,” Gayley said.

Although Gayley and her husband moved back to Durham a few years ago, they pick up boxes of books when they visit Atlanta, and Steinhauer also drives the books there when she visits.

Collected books that do not go to schools are donated to Little Free Libraries in Roswell where people can take or leave books as they choose. That relationship helped solve a dilemma of what to do with books that were too “loved” or “adult” to be given to school children, Steinhauer noted.

She and her mother, Carol, are in the process of sponsoring two Little Free Libraries in Roswell. One would be in memory of Kate Crockett; the second for Natalie Richman, who was the principal of Sweet Apple Elementary in Roswell at the time of her death.

Looking into the future, Steinhauer says she would love to expand Kids Just Choose Books to other schools – locally, regionally and state wide.

“I have a vision of collecting books in Fulton County to distribute to other areas of the state where students may not have access to programs that provide books,” she said. “This is long-term, far-reaching goal, and I would need community and school district help/support to achieve it.”

To that end, she knows it is not a solo effort, but the commitment of many. Steinhauer said she never wants KJC books to be about her, but simply about providing children with a “refuge” in a book.

“I want to be a part of making sure that every child, no matter the background or level of education of his/her parents, has access to books,” she said.  “Success to me means delivering as many books as possible to as many children as possible.”

For Steinhauer, being involved in this project is not intended to replace her grief with purpose.

“This may be true for some people, but for me the loss is permanent,” Steinhauer said. “I don’t believe that collecting books is ‘a good that came out of tragedy’...I just believe that it is good. Period.”

And this is where the books come in.

“Each day I have a choice: sit and stare at the wall, which is what I did and still do on many days, or do some good in the world. I choose door number two as often as I can. It is always good to give a kid a book.”

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