By DEB ENRIGHT
At 19 years of age while a junior at Belmont University, Casey Enright, the Founder of The Word Wagon answered a question with what she describes as her “Scariest, but best ‘YES’”.
Fast forward two years later and I find myself sharing Chai tea and coffee with Casey at the headquarters of the organization she founded. The headquarters just happens to be in the unfinished basement of our family home. That’s right, full disclosure, this social entrepreneur is my eldest daughter.
Casey learned in one of her classes that 1 out of 300 kids in low income neighborhoods has an age appropriate book at home. “That’s one copy of Go Dog Go for 300 children”, she says. She describes how that one fact broke her heart and jumpstarted a desire to change things for these kids. She thought about filling her car’s trunk with children’s books and going to a neighborhood park to read with kids. Then another professor talked about literacy and Casey found herself drawing a truck filled with books. She volunteered at a One Generation Away food distribution event and wondered what it could look like to bring books to read with the young kids while their adult family members waited for the distribution to begin.
Over coffee and a two-hour conversation with community champion, Chris Whitney of One Generation Away, Casey took the leap of faith saying “yes” to supplying a mobile reading room and books for kids waiting in line with their parents at a food distribution. The Word Wagon was born.
“Literally, at Frothy Monkey in downtown Franklin, Chris listened to my story and shared his. Then he simply looked at me and said, “I have a food distribution day here in Franklin in 9 days, can you be ready to start your work?”. And I simply said, “Yes!”, she says.
She describes her car crammed with a borrowed tent, her own wooden bookcase, some folding chairs, two scatter rugs, and 100 books of children’s books from her and sister Caroline’s library traveling down Franklin Road not knowing what to expect. It was October 17, 2015.
“We had 12 kids that first day. Wow, I thought, this can really happen”, she says with a smile.
In fact, on that debut day, someone donated a bag of gently used books to her. Weeks later, Casey spoke to a Youth Conference and 1500 middle schoolers donated enough books to fill three cars. “We’ve had book donations from across the country including Colorado, New York, and Washington, D.C. VBS groups, retired teachers, and all kinds of families have donated books to us. In fact, during one church’s day of service a family brought in 783 books. It has just been amazing to see the support. Evidently, it’s a great way to clean out some closets. And the folks at Mama Java’s in Nolensville are collecting books all month for us.”
The donated books are either gently used or new. Ranging from a board book to an older teen chapter book. “I like to say from Elmo’s ABCs to The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe’, she starts. ‘The condition of each book is so important. When we process the books, we do a Content and Quality Check with each one. We are helping children who may never have owned their own books create their own home libraries. We want them to get the best books possible.”, she explains.
“But please let folks know that The Word Wagon does not just give away books’, she stops. ‘At each reading day, we have volunteers of all ages come to read with our kids. After reading with a volunteer, each child is given a bundle of books to take home. The bundle includes 10 books ranging from board books to picture books with early readers and chapter books completing the array. We designed it that way so the books can be shared among siblings or neighbors.”
She smiles, “You can’t imagine the look of a child hugging that book bundle having earned it by reading while their parent or caregiver waits in line for food and then walking back to show it to them. It melts your heart.”
I ask the perennial question, “Does Dolly know about you?” Casey smiles, “well, actually, she knows about us and we process a lot of her Imagination Library books. I’d love to talk with her. The Word Wagon could reach children who do not have a permanent address so don’t receive her books. They would love to get books from a country music legend and we’d love to help her get those books to the incredible kids we serve.”
Casey believes the response to The Word Wagon is based on the simplicity of working to solve a problem. The mission of the organization is to promote literacy, provide reading opportunities, and place books in the hands of children in low income neighborhoods. And so far, so good.
This story of The Word Wagon Casey tells through her blog Leap of Faith and social media postings is how Martina McBride and her Team Music is Love Foundation came to know the organization. Casey starts, “She has an incredible foundation that gives through service. She learned about us through Instagram. Over the CMA Festival Week, we had a READing day at the food distribution her foundation was sponsoring so I thought, surely, she’ll make an appearance. And lo and behold when I looked up from setting things up for the morning, she was walking toward me. I think I said something like, “Oh my God!” and was very glad I had on one of The Word Wagon t-shirts. They have been so kind to us. We are so grateful.”
Families and new friends of all ages have come to help read with kids during The Word Wagon READing days, more organizations are donating books, and service groups like the Girl Scouts are helping Casey process and sort the books as well as creating the book bundles. I ask her why the volunteer response to The Word Wagon has been so good. “I think it’s because The Word Wagon is a family oriented missional opportunity’, she begins. ‘It’s great when adults read with our kids, but it is really cool when an 8-year-old comes to read and I see him sitting with a Kindergartener pouring over a book. I also think it lets folks know about the need and that they can easily have an impact.”
I ask her what it is like to have started this organization. “It’s all Him.”, she says. She describes that learning by doing can be stressful and she has no idea how she launched The Word Wagon while still in College, but wouldn’t trade any of the lack of sleep to keep things going through exams and while on overnight duty as an RA at Belmont. She’s been asked if she always wanted to start a non-profit and her answer is, “No”, but she has already begun building her Board of Directors.
So, what would she offer as advice to someone who hears a call to serve? “Simple’, she says. ’Explore it! Don’t get bogged down in the details. Take a leap of faith. And talk to others to see how they got started.”
She believes this work has found her. In the past two years, The Word Wagon has travelled 2,000 miles, held 37 READing days, read with 300 children, and provided 1,500 books for kids to start their home libraries. She speaks with all types of groups of all ages about The Word Wagon from a college classroom, to a filled sanctuary, to a civic group, to a group of middle school kids raising awareness and finding volunteers. This week, along with family, friends, and supporters, Casey will celebrate the second anniversary of the Word Wagon courtesy of Mark Cross at Buffalo Wings & Rings. She honestly cannot explain the success and growth of her idea to help except that she answered a simple call to bring the books to the children.
She beams when telling the stories of the children like the boy she was reading with who stopped and looked at her and said, “Thank you for being so nice to me. Thank you for reading to me. Sometimes folks are not nice to me at home, so thank you.” Or the little one who ran up and asked her, “Do you have any Thomas the Train books?” and snuggled up to her his eyes glued to the book and laughing at one point when Thomas laughed in the story.
“It’s reading and it’s building relationships’, she says as we wrap up our chat. I ask what’s next? She tells me about the upcoming November 18th READing day with the YMCA at the Margaret Maddox facility. And long term? “I see The Word Wagon across the country in every state in various cities’, she says. ‘Because there will most certainly be enough gently used children’s books just waiting for a new home. There are and will continue to be folks who can volunteer with us to read with our kids. And there will certainly always be a need to help all children create their own libraries in their homes.
Folks ask if we are proud of her for all that she has done at so young an age. We are. Proud as punch. But we are also inspired to right a wrong, to answer a call, and to give of the talents we have been given to make someone’s life better. Thanks, Casey.
For more information, to become a volunteer, to read her blog, and to see what’s next www.thewordwagon.com.