Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

Book Smart Bethlehem Dammlash ’06 has set her sights on educational equity for children from low-income families.

Dammlash-scaled-800x533 Book SmartBeth Dammlash ’06

“Reading is more than just about literacy skills. It’s about the joy of discovering yourself, as well as new people, places and concepts. And the earlier they start reading, the better they’ll do academically down the road.”

~ Beth Dammlash ’06

Bethlehem Dammlash’06, director of First Book’s member services team, started her Labor Day weekend by picking up the young adult novel “Slay.” The protagonist, Kiera Johnson, is an honors student, math tutor and one of the only Black kids in her high school. “She has created a ‘Black Panther’-inspired video game — a safe community for her and other Black gamers,” said Dammlash.

A safe, familiar community is what Dammlash is helping educators create for underrepresented children during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially since many schools are no longer holding in-person classes. With the world closing down around them, Dammlash knows how important it is for these children to have some semblance of normalcy and connect with ideas and characters, both familiar and new. “Reading,” she explained, “is more than just about literacy skills. It’s about the joy of discovering yourself, as well as new people, places and concepts. And the earlier they start reading, the better they’ll do academically down the road.”

At W&L, Dammlash knew she wanted to dedicate her career to the nonprofit sector and got her start through an internship with W&L’s Shepherd Program. After graduation, she served as an Elrod Fellow in Baltimore before working for several nonprofits centered around youth and social justice issues, including educational equity.

Dammlash joined First Book in 2013. The nonprofit focuses on removing barriers to quality education by providing educators with brand-new, high-quality books and other educational resources, such as classroom supplies. “We work with Title I schools, Head Starts, food nutrition programs, Title VII recipients — folks working in communities that have clear economic need or potentially serving kids that have special needs,” Dammlash said. “A lot of the kids may receive their very first book through us, and the fact that it’s brand new for folks who might not have everything brand new makes a difference. One of the initiatives I like the most at First Book is our Stories for All Project, which curates new, high-quality books representing diverse characters, voices and issues. To paraphrase Rudine Sims Bishop, we put those books in the hands of kids so they can have a window into another person’s life and, at the same time, also have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in those stories.”

The First Book Marketplace, the organization’s e-commerce site, allows educators, librarians, program staff and others serving children in need access to thousands of titles, educational resources and basic needs items. Agreements with First Book’s partners in the publishing industry allow the organization to offer its books and resources to its members at very low cost or for free.

While First Book has been able to provide vulnerable communities with reading materials and supplies during the pandemic, the increased emphasis on digital learning

highlights another challenge for underserved communities. “We have digital learning resources for our network, but not everyone has devices like computers or smartphones to access them. The pandemic showcases how harmful the digital divide can be for more vulnerable communities when you don’t have access to reliable internet service or your own computer,” she said. “We create opportunities for folks who do not traditionally have access to new books, digital devices or other items that you need to succeed, be more connected and learn on the same level as the people 15 minutes down the street from you. First Book may not eliminate all disadvantages, but we can provide access to high-quality educational resources to help bridge those gaps.”

When schools closed this past spring, First Book, one of the largest and fastest-growing networks of educators in the U.S., became busier than ever as people, foundations, corporations and donors ramped up their efforts to obtain and distribute books and educational resources to children in need. First Book switched to a remote working environment for its staff and has been able to continue working with the warehouse partners that process and ship deliveries for the First Book Marketplace site.

“At a time where there seems to be so much that’s lacking, there also seems to be so much giving,” Dammlash noted. “People are trying to make sure that we’re able to do what we need to do for the more vulnerable communities out there, from education to clothing to everything else. The support is wonderful to see.”

She added, “It’s always been rewarding for me, and any work that I’ve done in my career has been centered around striving towards a more equitable world and creating level playing fields for all people — regardless of where they start. Plus, the fact that I can do that work at an educational nonprofit that’s focused on equity, read interesting books, hear stories of the impact that we make for kids, while working with great people — it all makes me grateful that I’ve been a part of First Book’s mission every day for the past seven years.”

Visit First Book’s COVID-19 Action webpage to learn more about the organization’s coronavirus relief efforts. Additionally, check out the First Book Marketplace’s Empowering Educators section to find free educator resources.

If you know a W&L alumnus who would be a great profile subject, tell us about it! Nominate them for a web profile.