Everyone could use a spark to get them going, especially during a pandemic. Which is why the prize the Gwinnett Coalition won this summer was so uplifting to the organization.

The coalition won the United Way’s SPARK prize in July, earning grant money for its G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds project to promote early childhood reading. The coalition claimed the top prize, earning $25,000, as well as the “viewer’s choice” award from online voting that added an extra $1,000 to the grant.

“It was surreal,” Lecia Young, program coordinator for the Gwinnett Coalition said. “We had a big celebration when we found out we had won the award.”

Young and Ellen Gerstein, executive director of the Gwinnett Coalition, practiced their presentation daily prior to the chance to speak directly to the judges. Their diligence paid off by winning the top SPARK prize, which awards grants to fund collaborative and innovative projects addressing greater Atlanta’s biggest social challenges.

Young said she and Gerstein were excited to win because the grant will lead to more celebrations by Gwinnett County children who will have access to the free libraries that are at the center of the campaign.

“The SPARK prize adds another level of sustainability and development to G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds,” Young said. “Winning the SPARK Prize, coupled with our large number of community supporters, puts G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds on track to inspire the love of reading, provide access to early learning children’s books in areas where books are scarce, and encourage an appreciation for public art in Gwinnett County.”

The goal is for the free book exchanges to benefit children and families by increasing free access to early learning books. During the first part of the program, the library structures were built and then decorated by local artists.

The next part is one that is continuing. The coalition is actively collecting books — more than 20,000 have been handed out at this point — with the main drop-off point being at the Snellville Police Department. Books can also be dropped off at the Gwinnett Coalition’s office, located at 750 Perry St., #312, in Lawrenceville.

The next part is getting the libraries installed. At the end of August, Young said 38 of the free libraries had been placed around the county. Twenty more are scheduled to be installed in the coming months, with 16 of those at Gwinnett County parks.

“I am amazed and surprised by the number of individuals and organizations who reach out daily wanting to be a part of the program or simply wants to know where they can drop-off books,” Young said.

Winning the SPARK prize has sped up the process of getting the libraries into the community, Young said. The grant money will also be used in other ways, including the purchase of books in different languages and books featuring different cultures to “make sure everyone is represented in G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds” Young said.

The funds will also be used to purchase batteries for the tracking technology installed in many of the libraries. Earlier this year, students at Paul Duke STEM High School inserted chips in the doors of some of the book exchanges that keep track of how many times the library door has been opened to help monitor it.

Young said the grant will also be used to print and design new bookmarks and install plaques on each library honoring the artist who created it.

As books are collected and exchanges installed, there is one area that is much needed — stewards to oversee the individual exchanges.

Young said stewards are encouraged to check on the book exchange two to three times a month to make sure it is fully stocked, but many monitor it more often. In addition to individuals, Young said local companies have become stewards of some of the book exchanges, having employees take turns checking and stocking them.

“The primary role of a G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds steward is to care for the book exchange so that it becomes a vital, engaging resource for the neighborhood or community,” Young said. “Stewards are the key local contacts for each book exchange.

“We encourage each steward to keep the book exchange full at all times. This is done by welcoming participation, creating and maintaining a friendly place in and around the book exchange, and encouraging early learning for all ages.”

Anyone interested in becoming a steward can find out more by going to https://www.gwinnettcoalition.org/great-little-minds/stewardship/.

In addition to stewards, volunteers to help install the book exchanges are also needed, Young said. More information about all volunteering opportunities can be found at gwinnettcoalition.org.

“I am immensely grateful to everyone who has donated books, time, and energy,” Young said. “G.R.E.A.T. Little Minds truly is a community project and we could not have made it here without the community’s support.”

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