Jurema Gorham founded Burst into Books in 2018 to offer families increased access to literacy, academic enrichment, and meaningful relationships As families prepare to begin a new school year virtually, many will miss opportunities to engage children in extracurricular activities that promote academic excellence and relationship building..
Sabrina Catlett (SC): Tell us a bit about yourself and the beginnings of Burst into Books.
Jurema Gorham (JG): Well, I am the mother of an 8-year old son, and I have been a teacher since 2008. I’ve taught everything from Kindergarten through high school, and I now teach 9th-grade Environmental Science. I founded Burst Into Books in August 2018. It came from me and a few of my son’s friends’ mothers talking about our kids’ lack of programming. We wanted a book club. Sure, our kids were into sports, but my son was into reading from a young age. When he was a baby, I would take him to the library often. We lived in Alsip, and they always had stuff for him to do like story time and music. When I came back to the city, it wasn’t in my area, so I would have to travel to other neighborhoods. It made me wonder: Why isn’t this in my neighborhood? So, the moms and I talked, and because I’m a teacher, they recommended I start the group.
I posted the idea online, and I got a lot of traction. Many families with kids in different age groups wanted their children to be apart. Because my son was six at the time, I originally planned for this group to include 5-7-year-old boys, but the response I got to the idea changed that. As it grew, friends came with children who were older and younger, some with girls, and I couldn’t just say, “Well, they can’t be in the book club.” I sat back and thought that if I could get other people on board, I would be open to doing more.
I reached out to friends who were educators and youth workers, and every person I asked expressed interest in working with me. We started with an informational for parents in September. My principal was open to hosting it at my school, so we hosted about 20 families. We had four groups: 6 months old- 3-years old, ages 4-7, 8-10, and 11-14, and I introduced their teachers. I realized that I could do whatever I want because I’m the founder, and I thought it was super important that the books we read represented the kids and wanted a variety in the kinds of books. I wanted different genres, different types of authors. Then I thought it would be cool if they met authors. So, I put out another poll for guest authors. I found different Facebook groups, and people started getting back to me. We set it up so that every month, every age group would have a guest author.
Next, I remembered that what drew my child to reading was that he had access to it. He had his home library. Reading wasn’t like homework; it was just what we did. So, I got the idea that we would provide books for families through book grants and donations. Now, in each group, we have a free library. Kids can take as many books as they want, and we continue to replenish it. Some kids, especially older ones, were put in the group because their parents think they don’t like reading. I explained to parents that it’s not that they don’t like reading; they just haven’t found their book. So, the unlimited libraries became a big hit with families. I wanted to support the guest authors as well, so after the book club, the authors would set up tables, and parents would buy their books.
Now, I had parents who had multiple kids in different age groups. So we created a community area with snacks, games, and various activities. It made it so that if one child was in class, a parent could still engage with their other children. Families in the community area began to do activities together and form relationships. I was excited to see the idea blossom.
I wanted to teach the whole child, and this book club magnified other reasons that children aren’t doing well. Midway through the first year, we started reading level testing for students with my friends who are reading specialists. Many parents can be told their kid is below the reading level. Now parents could know precisely what their child is struggling with and get concrete steps in supporting the child’s growth. By the second year, the testing became a standard part of our program. Every child gets tested in the beginning, and again midway through the year.
Finally, I got the idea for a conference. My son was six at the time, and I’m a single mom. I looked for a conference and mentorship for boys, but most of the opportunities were middle school ages and up. As a teacher, I know that kids start forming their identities in kindergarten, so I didn’t want to wait until they were 12 to give them a conference. So, I created our first conference for boys starting at age six and going through high school. I made sure men led it. I came up with the name “Remixing the Narrative: Journey to Manhood,” and we had the conference on June 1, 2019. We wanted to tear down the idea that kids of color were not into literacy. We also wanted to be able to show different aspects of manhood at various stages. The kids had workshops with men from all different backgrounds and professions. I wanted every boy to see someone they could connect with. I gave the men the authority to plan what would happen and all the different topics, and the boys got to ask questions during the panel discussion. My mom catered the food for the event, and we had team-building opportunities in the afternoon. We also had a parent class to support what the kids were learning, which reinforced the community that we were already building.
We also hosted a girls’ conference in October called “From Me to We.” We wanted to talk about identity, but also the importance of community and relationships. Girls needed to know their own identities and allow that to help them make better decisions about their friends. Girls tend to think, “I don’t need girlfriends”, but we all do, and that attitude comes from hurt and trauma. Still, it’s about being wise in who you are. I had my friend go and lead them in affirmation and meditations, we still did team building, and we also had sponsors who gave us giveaway bags. We did the parent sessions during this conference, and their responses were so great. Parents didn’t want it to end. Parents often don’t get a chance to congregate with other parents. In these spaces, parents could inspire one another based on their experiences. Parents who have children with special needs get support from one another. Because the conference was a hit for the boys and the girls, we planned a parent conference scheduled for April 1, 2020. It wasn’t going to be about parenting. We planned to discuss grief and loss, financial literacy, and healthy eating at every budget. We had a class for families with children who were involved with gangs and street life. Since many parents rarely get to let their hair down, we would have fun workout sessions, jewelry making classes, and other things like that. Of course, we’ve had to postpone.
SC: The pandemic has thwarted many plans and made it difficult for businesses to be sustained. How has Burst into Books shifted during the pandemic?
JG: Because of the pandemic, everything is virtual, which has expanded the community. The neighborhood partnerships I had before the pandemic spread out the resources to the degree that families may not have taken advantage of all the opportunities due to distance. Now that we’re virtual, we have an audience that is across the city. Furthermore, authors around the nation have been able to engage with our kids. My programming and my mind have broadened because there are no neighborhood limitations. What I’ve learned in doing this work is that all I can do is ask. People can say no, but for the most part, people are not going to say no. While I’ve featured many self-published authors, this year, I am aiming to host more highly acclaimed authors– people they’ve seen in bookstores and elsewhere. Now I can do it without paying travel fees. Each month, from September to June, we have bestselling authors from all over, Chicago included. We can buy the author’s books and give them to the families. Some authors are offering to bring their illustrators as well. I’m so excited because all I had to do was ask.
We are still trying to figure strategies to make it community-oriented, like themes for each month and sending families products in the mail. We also just acquired a building in Roseland to arrange to drop off books and meet in small groups to host workshops.
I met an author from Philadelphia who does financial literacy for kids. She heard about the violence in Chicago, so she reached out to me three weeks ago to figure out how to be a part of a solution. She offered her financial literacy workshop to Chicago youth for free. We put together this class on Zoom for 180 kids ages 6-18, split into different groups. If the world were still open, I would not have been able to have this for free because she would have to fly here, print materials, etc. Things like that have been really cool and have made me think about doing them even when we go back. I probably wouldn’t have thought about this if we were still in school, and we are a non-profit, so we wouldn’t have the funds to do this type of programming.
The pandemic slowed me down in the right way. I get to spend more time with my son, focus on my business, and be intentional with my time, building my brand and audience. It helped solidify the mission for my business.
SC: You’ve been hosting virtual community town halls. How were they developed, and what will you do with them moving forward?
JG: Once a month, we do online community town halls that I started at the top of the pandemic. People had many questions, and I would see a lot of confusion. People needed space to talk. In the beginning, they were every week. I brought together different stakeholders, at first parents and administrators, to see how they were feeling and what their needs were during the shutdown. There were principals, homeschool network leaders, a father of 5, and a grandparent on the panel. There was a lot of pointing fingers at first, but then there was an opportunity for people to share another side, which helped end some issues. The most impactful thing was the comments where families shared resources and struggles. One mom whose son was autistic received resources from other families. We did another town hall with all students, where I featured kids from kindergarten through college. They talked a lot about school and missing their friends, but they also spoke about struggling with depression and how much time is being spent on the computer. It was great because after so many decisions were made for kids without considering how they feel, administrators could rethink concerning what was best for students.
I did a town hall about the Census. They reached out to me because families in the neighborhoods I serve are underrepresented in the Census. I also had a town hall meeting on different non-profits, sharing the other things they were doing with parents. We had a town hall that talked about the violence in Chicago, which turned into focus groups to figure out how to connect with our kids. We’re planning back to school events and other ways to be in the neighborhoods. As the school year starts, Burst Into Books will continue the town halls once a month based on the community’s pulse. We always have a terrific turnout, and the town hall introduced me to other people to like-minded people who were ready to do the work but didn’t know how to get plugged in.
SC: What are some ways Burst into Books can be a resource for families during this upcoming school year?
JG: In the Fall, Burst into Books will have E-learning academic support with online tutoring. We just did this during the summer from July to August as a 6-week program. I wanted to offer it to families for free, but I knew I had to pay my tutors. In the matter of a month, the news spread about what I was doing, and we were able to raise $11,000, which allowed me to pay my tutors and get supplemental materials for students.
This Fall, Burst into Books is expanding the program, ensuring it is aligned with what students are doing in the classroom. We are still pretesting to make sure we are addressing the gaps. We have different tutoring packages that parents can split between their children to make it more economical, and we also offer payment plans. Many parents wanted their children to get one-on-one tutoring as well as small class sessions. Starting in October, we’ll have themed math and reading workshops for six weeks at a time, two days a week, and there will be no more than 20 kids in a class. We’ll also still do the virtual book club every month.
To learn more about Jurema Gorham and Burst into Books, visit burstintobooks.org and follow them on all social platforms.