The “Take a Look—Buy a Book—Donate” Campaign

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by Ryan G. Van Cleave

When Sheila Birnbaum sees a need, she feels an obligation to do something about it. That’s surely thanks to her long career up in the Northeast as a patient advocate, which means she spent decades helping others.

Birnbaum’s first initiative was The Pajama Game. She sent hundreds of letters asking people to donate new pajamas and books when they come together for social gaming, such as card games, board games, or bingo. That initiative gave more than 250 children books, cozy new pajamas, and soft stuffed animals. These items provide a sense of comfort and security to at-risk children who are served by JFCS of the Suncoast.

And three years ago, when she realized that veterans and the homeless in our community often don’t have an adequate supply of socks, she acted. “It’s unacceptable,” says Birnbaum. “Some of the homeless walk 4,000 miles per year but don’t have any socks. And when veterans come back home and start looking for jobs, many don’t have dress socks. They come to career counseling but suddenly realize they don’t have the appropriate brown, black, or blue socks required to look professional at a job interview.” So she partnered with JFCS of the Suncoast to address that need. Soon after, the community responded by giving 4,000 pairs of socks. 

Her latest cause? Fighting illiteracy. “Over 35 million people can’t read beyond a third-grade level,” she says. “It’s a staggering statistic, but it’s why I’m making an ongoing commitment to fight the illiteracy crisis on a local level.” That’s what her “Take a Look—Buy a Book—Donate” campaign is all about. Designed to promote literacy to children from Pre-K to 5th grade—with an emphasis on low-income and at-risk children—the program seeks to provide new books to area youth. She ran the program last February and March, and thanks to its success, she plans to do it again in 2018 during those same months.

Last year, some of the 2,200+ donated books netted by the “Take a Look—Buy a Book—Donate” campaign went to the sheriff’s department. Why? Officers kept a few in their car in case they ever had a situation where a child needed to be distracted while the officer had to interact with parents. Plus they kept some in the waiting room at the police station for the same reason. Other books found their way to local hospitals, especially to the waiting rooms in pediatrics and maternity floors. “We really simply want the books to reach the community,” adds Birnbaum. JFCS of the Suncoast case workers and case managers directly deliver most of the books to children they know, Birnbaum adds, since they know exactly where the greatest needs are.

A huge win for the program is partnering with the Library Foundation of Sarasota County to allow “Take a look—Buy a book” to piggyback on James Patterson’s February 7, 2018 visit to Sarasota. When someone buys a ticket for that event, they’ll be invited to donate a book. Birnbaum will have a drop-off bin at the event, too, with signage about the program. She says, “It’s going to be a sellout lunch crowd of 600, so having a presence there and showcasing the program is a great opportunity.”

The Sarasota County Library system, too, has gotten behind this program, allowing Birnbaum to have bins in all nine county libraries during the month of February. They’ll be easy to spot, Birnbaum promises, since each bin will be wrapped in children’s designs.

Birnbaum counts herself lucky to have so many willing partners, such as the National Council of Jewish Women, the Kiwanis Club, Bank of America, the Junior League of Sarasota, and Designing Women, which are just some of the other partners willing to help. But there’s always room for more support. 

Birnbaum adds that while the people of Sarasota and Manatee counties are very supportive and giving, they don’t always know where that donation goes. With her program, they can touch it. They can feel it. It’s something tangible that they can buy themselves, then drop off in person, and they will take comfort in knowing they had a big impact on the life of a kid who lives right here in our own backyard. 

Want a way to help? Drop off a new, unwrapped children’s book at JFCS of the Suncoast on Fruitville Road. But, Birnbaum notes, there are other ways to participate. Having a dinner party? When the guests ask if they can bring anything, mention that they could bring a book to donate to “Take a Look—Buy a Book—Donate.” What about those who have a poker, mahjong, or bingo group? Ask for everyone to bring along a book donation for the next gathering. Having a birthday? Maybe suggest a book donation versus another gift you might not have a use for. And what about those who aren’t shoppers but still want to help out? “Pick up a gift card and send it along to JFCS earmarked for the book drive,” Birnbaum says. “We’ll take it from there.”

“The spirt of volunteerism is alive and well in our community,” explains Birnbaum. “Despite the pace and pressure of everyday life, thousands of our friends and neighbors are quietly reaching out in order to make a difference in a variety of ways.” But she doesn’t take it for granted. After the book drive is over, she sits at her kitchen table and sends out thank you notes. “Success is sweetest when it’s shared,” she says. Her hope is to see much to be proud of and, when it’s all said and done, reported in the JFCS of the Suncoast newsletter and website.

For more information about JFCS of the Suncoast or the “Take a Look—Buy a Book—Donate” campaign, please visit or call 941.366.2224.

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