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Tempe Book Bike program aims to boost literacy to underserved communities

Book Bike co-founder Sean King said students could learn real-world experience through involvement in the program


"Literature on wheels." Illustration published on Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

A Tempe Marine veteran is putting literature on two wheels to deliver library services to people who are homeless via the Tempe Book Bike Program.

The program is housed under Tempe Public Library, which is the closest public library to ASU's Tempe campus. The program acts as a mobile book service that allows individuals living in underserved communities to check out books without a library card. 

Volunteers in the program bike around a cart full of books, giving out three books at a time to each person for a checkout time of two weeks. The books come from donations separate from the library's donation collection.

After serving two tours in Afghanistan in the U.S. Marine Corps, Sean King, Tempe Book Bike ambassador and sole rider of the bike, was inspired along with other founders of the program to help create a service for the veterans and homeless population in Tempe, which often overlap.

“We feel that veterans have done a lot for our country and in our community,” King said. “We’re trying to ensure that the veterans that are living on the street are getting the access to care that they deserve.”

Nick Escalante, the program’s grant project administrator, said the goal of the project is to offer library services to those who cannot travel to the library for services or are unable to get a library card, which requires a state ID.

Melissa Quillard, a spokeswoman for the program, said it demonstrates how libraries have evolved to broaden their community involvement over the past decade.

“It’s more of a community gathering place as opposed to the place where you had to be super, super quiet and can’t talk,” Quillard said. “The next phase of libraries is taking the library to the community.”

King said that using a bicycle, a popular mode of transportation used by the homeless, and interacting with people face-to-face has helped build communal trust in the program and has increased participation in the program by the community.

Last summer, when the program used a truck to deliver books in the heat instead of a bike, King noticed the homeless population was more distrustful of the city truck than when he was outside on the bike.

King said that students at ASU studying social work would benefit from volunteering with the program and could learn important communication and relationship-building skills that could help them in their careers like he has learned through his involvement in the project.

“I think this would be the perfect place for (students) to volunteer their time because it does give them that experience in meeting homeless people and understanding that they’re not scary," he said. “Homeless people are not much different from any of us, really. They think on more of a day-to-day basis rather than a week-to-week or month-to-month or year-to-year.”

King said students could learn to communicate effectively with the homeless. People who are homeless, he said, sometimes feel like they are being talked down to if they don’t understand what someone is saying, which hinders people from being able to engage with them in their own communities.

Judy Krysik, associate director and associate professor in the School of Social Work, said she agrees that the activities volunteers participate in for the Tempe Book Bike program would be educationally beneficial to students.

“One of the things that social workers are required to learn is how (to) engage with different populations and this program is about engagement skills,” Krysik said. “The program is connecting people to resources. That’s another role of social workers and a good skill for social work students.”

She said students studying social work learn how to build relationships in their coursework and that students could learn firsthand the importance of relationships through active engagement with others in this program.

“Relationships are the vehicle to get other things done,” Krysik said. “That ability to engage and relate and communicate — those are key in social work."

King said he wants the Book Bike program to be a tool to connect the homeless population with other families in Tempe. He said along with other programs like Tempe’s Homeless Outreach Program Effort and the Aris Foundation, he hopes that the program will help diminish judgement directed at the homeless  population.

Krysik said there are many families in Tempe experiencing homelessness and various programs like the Tempe Book Bike throughout the city could help lower the rate of homelessness in years to come.

“It can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach,” she said. “There are many different reasons people are homeless. It takes work on multiple levels. It’s not going to be a simple solution.”

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