Susan McNeill stands on a loading dock in Wilmington, Delaware, shading her eyes from the sun while she watches for the approach of an 18-wheeler transporting a load of secondhand books from Tennessee. The rig is bound for the headquarters of Success Won't Wait (SWW), the literacy program Susan cofounded to encourage people to read. She solicits donations from libraries, publishers and schools across the country, and has recruited local businesses, stores and churches to serve as drop-off locations. But it's the countless individuals who have scoured their attics, basements and garages who have enabled SWW to carry out its vision.
So far the nonprofit has collected some 400,000 titles, which are cleaned, repaired and sorted according to category and age group. Then they're distributed to whoever needs them—elementary and middle schools, Boys and Girls Clubs, Head Start programs. SWW has established independent libraries in places such as an alternative learning facility for teens with special needs, a residential home for pregnant girls and a hospice for chronically ill children. The organization also sends out huge shipments to U.S. troops overseas.
Kris DePonte, a former reading specialist at the Kuumba Academy Charter School in Wilmington, is thrilled that every classroom there now has its own lending library. "Students who are struggling can choose easier books they can actually enjoy, while kids who zip through the standardized texts can check out something a little more challenging," she says. "Success Won't Wait has filled a real need."
A Family Affair
Susan, 48, loves to share comments like that with her husband Don, 49, and kids Ashley, 21, Matt, 16, and Christine, 15. "I want them to know how much good we're doing," she says. The McNeills spend several hours each week unloading used titles, erasing pencil marks, taping torn pages and pasting SWW stickers on the covers. Susan puts in much more time handling correspondence and administrative tasks and writing a blog about her work. "I still can't believe this all started 10 years ago with one little basket of books at Christine's dance studio," she says.
"I used to bring along Matt's favorite stories, like Winnie the Pooh, to read to him in the waiting room during lessons. The other mothers kept asking to borrow them, so I got permission to leave a collection in the lobby."
The dance instructor, Vincenza Carrieri-Russo, loved the idea and helped Susan put the mini library in place. Parents soon started talking about how wonderful it would be to have the same thing at their kids' karate school, hair salon and doctor's and dentist's offices. Susan, who earned her BA at the University of Delaware, launched a one-woman publicity campaign. "I got the message out that I was looking for old books and put a few empty boxes in the dance studio, a jewelry store and a deli," she says. "After I collected 1,000 books in just a few days, I knew I was on to something."
Susan's home was soon overflowing with donations. Vincenza came to the rescue, convincing her father to let the fledgling operation move, rent-free, into a storefront in the shopping mall he owns. "Things really snowballed from there," says Susan. "Friends supplied us with shelving and furniture. Don contributed printing and paper for brochures through the educational games company he founded."
And the books kept coming. A group of high school students from nearby states who had competed in a robotics challenge collected 14,000 pounds of texts and drove them in a convoy of cars over the Delaware Memorial Bridge. After Susan set up a website, reading clubs across the country began sending in titles signed by authors. "Going online has been instrumental," she says. "We keep track of every donation, and when we ask how they heard about us they invariably answer, 'Oh, we found you on the Web!'"
For the first six years, SWW was so busy collecting and processing books that it delivered only locally in Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. "But in January 2008 I got a call from an AmeriCorps teacher in Lewis County, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia," Susan recalls. "She told me the median household income there was one of the lowest in the United States and that Weston, the town where she was stationed, desperately needed books for the elementary school, senior center and local library." Susan was so touched that she made up her mind to help. "I knew it would be up to me and my family to get the books there," she says. "And I knew that delivering them personally would allow us to see firsthand what our work means to people."
She talked to Don and the kids about the situation in Weston and suggested they drive to West Virginia that summer instead of vacationing in Cape Cod or Florida. "I was so proud of their response," she says. "Matt told me, 'We know the trip means a lot to you, Mom. You've worked so hard. We can always go to Disney World, but we can't always do something like this.'"
The McNeills spent winter and spring gathering and packing. In July they loaded 5,200 books into the family minivan and a rented truck and made the seven-hour drive south through winding mountain roads. "I was clutching the steering wheel the whole way," Susan says. "It was worth it, though, because when we arrived and opened the car doors, we actually heard a gasp from the crowd." The AmeriCorps teacher had alerted the residents that the McNeills were coming, and people were ready with trucks and trailers. "There were little kids, grandparents and everyone in between," Susan recalls. "We handed out box after box, and everyone kept thanking us over and over again. Matt turned to me and said, 'I admit I wasn't always happy sitting in our living room labeling stuff, but now I'm actually meeting the people who get donations. This is a game changer.'"
For her part, Ashley was inspired to start the Naked Book Project, sorting out deteriorated, damaged and otherwise unusable volumes, removing the covers and donating the pages to Paper Retriever, an organization that enables civic groups and schools to raise funds through recycling.
By 2010 SWW had secured nonprofit status, allowing Susan to start fundraising instead of picking up the tab for long-distance deliveries to schools and institutions with limited resources. Contributions are mostly from private individuals, and to garner more support she frequently posts on her blog to keep donors and beneficiaries updated as well as encourage others to get involved.
"Knowing what kids get out of reading—you really can't place a value on it—is all the motivation I need," Susan says. "I still get a big thrill every time I place a basket filled with books in a waiting room. I imagine a kid reaching in and pulling out something—whether it's The Cat in the Hat or Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul—and I can't help but smile."
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Family Circle magazine.