Alumni Spotlight Georgia Impact Society & Culture

Leslie Hale: Keeping Children Reading

Life can be a balancing act, but for Leslie Hale MPA '13, executive director of Books for Keeps, helping local children read makes it all worthwhile. After the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the nonprofit from delivering books directly to schools, Books for Keeps volunteers responded by dropping off more than 53,000 books at students' homes after they made their choices online. (Photo by Peter Frey/UGA)

Books for Keeps

L­eslie Hale had a complicated relationship with books when she was a kid.

“I tore through some books, and some books that classmates were reading, I couldn’t finish,” she says. “It made me think I wasn’t a very good reader.”

But that experience gave her a unique understanding of why some kids fall out of reading or never get in the habit to begin with—something that Hale is working to change with Books for Keeps.

Hale MPA ’13 is executive director of the Athens-based nonprofit, which is a grassroots effort to get books into the hands of children who might not otherwise have books at home. The organization especially works to stop “summer slide,” the loss of reading skills during summer break that can lead to lagging classroom performance later on. Founded by fellow alumna Melaney Smith BBA ’89 in 2009, Books for Keeps has given more than half a million books to children from low-income families in grades Pre-K through 12.

Hale started as the nonprofit’s first full-time employee and executive director shortly after graduating from UGA’s Master of Public Administration program in 2013. She’s since taken the nonprofit from serving five schools to serving 20 schools, including all 14 public elementary schools in Athens.

“When we talk about how to address poverty, how to build a better society, it comes back to education,” Hale says. “It means allowing children to have equal access and equal opportunities to explore and develop an appreciation where their education can get them, a curiosity about the world. Reading builds all of those things—particularly reading for pleasure.”

The COVID-19 pandemic required some adjustment, but Books for Keeps’ operation didn’t really slow down. Instead of the organization visiting each of the schools, volunteers delivered more than 53,000 books directly to students’ homes after students ordered their book choices online. Another 15,000 books were delivered via FedEx to children from outlying counties.

Hale, a former journalist, felt drawn to nonprofit work after learning the importance of volunteering from her mother, who spent many Saturdays cooking lunch at a local homeless shelter, sometimes bringing Hale with her to volunteer.

“That was the direction the universe was pushing me in,” she says.

She realized she needed a different set of skills than covering government and education and enrolled in the School of Public and International Affairs’ MPA program, which is strong in public policy, nonprofit, and government work.

In her master’s program, she learned about the day-to-day aspects of running a nonprofit: how to budget and finance, how to go through an annual audit, how to apply for grants, how to utilize a board of directors as resources, and more.

Now an unabashed lover of reading, Hale today watches her own daughter, a first grader that she was pregnant with at her first Books for Keeps Book Sale, learn to read and embrace the joy of books. Little Evelyn Hale even got to test out the new online ordering system in Spring 2020 to make sure it was user-friendly for a kindergartner and to order her own 12 books to keep.