It’s a Tuesday morning at Rowe Elementary, a charter school on the city’s North Side, and in Ms. Voigts’ third-grade class, the students are wide-eyed, clinging to the edges of their desks to still themselves. Each kid steps to the front and gets a shiny white plastic bag, then wades back into a moment that builds into a kind of feverish, break-the-pinata pandemonium. The bags are filled with books, not candy, but in an instant they are pulled out, spread across desks, passed with wonder from hand to hand. Kids are no longer using indoor voices: “Ooh, ‘STAR WARS’ — I love it!” “What did you get?” “I’ll trade you …”
Hanging back in the corner near the door is Brian Floriani, a tall, slightly sheepish guy in a baseball cap who is, almost single-handedly, responsible for the uproar. The charity he founded in his North Shore garage seven years ago, Bernie’s Book Bank, has now distributed more than 7 million books, and counting, to kids in the Chicago area.
The plan? To deliver 12 books per year, every year to every at-risk child from birth through sixth grade, throughout Chicagoland. Those kids are at Women, Infants and Children (WIC) centers and at schools like Rowe, where the percentage of children eligible for free or reduced lunch hovers at around 80 percent.
The numbers represent significant progress in an effort to make a dent in the daunting issue of literacy in at-risk communities, where book ownership boils down to stats like these: In a 2006 study published in the Handbook of Early Literacy Research, middle-income neighborhoods surveyed showed an average of 13 books per child. Low-income communities had approximately 300 children per one book. For Floriani, putting books into kids’ hands isn’t just a battle to change those numbers: It’s a personal quest.
In 2005, four years before he founded Bernie’s Book Bank, Floriani’s life was on a different course. He worked as a golf pro, teaching for Golf Digest magazine. Some days, going to work meant hopping on a private plane, stepping onto a pristine green; the satisfying thwack of a well-hit ball racing gravity down a long fairway.
Then Bernie Floriani Sr., Brian’s father, died in his sleep at age 58. The heart attack that took him was sudden, a graceful exit that left his family stunned. Brian eulogized both his dad and his maternal grandmother, who died the same day, and walked away from the funeral into a dark tunnel of self-doubt.
“When my father died,” he says, “I thought, ‘Will anybody have anything good to say about me when I’m gone? And will it be true?’ And then: ‘Will it matter?'”
His dad’s story set a high standard — the son of a Pennsylvania coal miner, Bernie Sr. was a voracious reader and star basketball player who became a respected educator, focusing on literacy.
“My grandfather worked in the coal mine for 51 years, and my father didn’t have running water until college,” Floriani says. “I knew where I came from and what’s possible.
“I remember my dad telling me ‘You can do anything.’ And that was no b.s. It was real. I believed him. And believing is half the battle — that and grit.”
In the wake of his dad’s death, he realized he wanted to be of service to people. Inspired by his dad’s dedication to literacy, Floriani, by then married with a child on the way, decided to become a teacher, and in 2008 took a job as a reading paraprofessional at Shiloh Park Elementary in Zion, as a way to get a foot in the door.
“The same passion you see now,” says Keely Roberts, superintendent of schools for Zion School District 6, who was then principal at Shiloh Park, “that was already there at his job interview. I often wonder if people think it’s a pitch, but it’s all genuine.”
To make ends meet, Floriani says, “I had three jobs, and one of them was getting up at 3 a.m. and cleaning offices. For 2 1/2 years, every morning I’d clean toilets, vacuum every once in a while. Sometimes I’d think about that private jet and how work used to be just teeing it up. But I felt like I had purpose, like I was living something special. I was on a journey, and the theme music had changed.”
Very quickly, he began to perceive needs that weren’t being met in his students. “The children were hungry to become readers,” he says. “But they couldn’t even take a book out from the library because there were too few books, books were too precious.” He felt he had been given a front-row seat at the start of a tragic cycle. “I would see hope in their eyes, but I’d leave there thinking ‘You are gonna grow up, and people are gonna complain about you.’ We expect kids to better themselves, but we don’t give them what they need to do it.”
“I think he realized really quickly that it was bigger than our school,” says Roberts, “a huge, huge problem.”
In fact, studies show 85 percent of kids who wind up in the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate. When those kids are imprisoned, Floriani says, “who we’re really holding accountable is not a 19- or 20-year-old, it’s the 3- or 4-year-old who didn’t get what he needed to have a good start.”
Floriani’s mind kept coming back to his dad, the coal miner’s child who “literally read his way out of that life,” he says.
“Brian has always seen the face of his father in these kids,” says Barrett Davie, InStadium founder and chairman of the board of directors at Bernie’s Book Bank.
“I would come to Keely and say, ‘We gotta do something about this,'” Floriani says.
The idea, when it came, seemed almost infuriatingly simple: “I knew there were tons of books out there,” Floriani says. “All those books in every home that your kids aren’t reading anymore because they grew out of them. The supply has got to outweigh the demand; we just need a way to connect the books with the kids who need them.” All he needed, Floriani decided, was to build a distribution system.
“So many people have great ideas,” Roberts says, “so many people see a need — and so few people find a way to make the good stuff happen.”
But Floriani, who had already given up life on the golf course for cleaning bathrooms and teaching kids to read, was ready to take action. In 2009, he began putting up signs in Starbucks, asking for used children’s books to be donated. Someone saw one of those signs and tipped him off to a shipment of overstock books that were headed for the dumpster.
“I dug them out, box by box. So there I was, in my garage with my first four pallets of books. Sitting there, I decided that in 2013 we were going to be doing a million books a year.”
He decided to name the charity he had just founded Bernie’s Book Bank, after his dad. And once he got started, he became a book delivery juggernaut, at the expense of nearly all else, plugging away at his mission by day, cleaning offices at night. “I was going nonstop,” he says. “I had a sickness. But the sickness was that it didn’t sit well with me what was going on with these kids. It still doesn’t. We have a lot of work to do.”
Floriani recruited people to the cause at every opportunity — a mutual friend got him the ear of Barrett Davie by making Floriani their caddy for a round of golf. “I remember walking up the fairway on the ninth hole, and he started talking,” says Davie. “It didn’t take long before I was saying, ‘OK, I’m in.'”
Floriani also navigated his way to publishers, who could send their remaindered titles to Bernie’s for distribution, rather than destruction. And he pulled in volunteers, from Boy Scout troops to corporate salespeople to Lake Forest charity mavens to help sort, pack and deliver books to schools.
The deliveries, he found, were more powerful than anything he could say. “It was very labor intensive,” he says. “But it was very validating. You would have thought we were giving them ice cream cones. I was like, ‘This is what it’s like to be Elvis.'”
“Sometimes,” says Davie, “some of the best things you can do in the world are the simplest things.”
Floriani’s simple concept has made it possible for him to have an impact on literacy — one of the most troubling, pervasive, ignored issues in the nation — by breaking off a small, contained piece of a larger problem.
“He hit on something that was an issue that’s solvable, and he solved it,” says Melissa Walsh, vice president of global philanthropy at the AbbVie Foundation.
If Bernie’s does what Floriani and a growing cadre of supporters thinks it can, a lack of books for at-risk kids “is one variable you’ll never have to worry about again,” he says. There are moments when he sounds like a sort of Jonas Salk of book ownership: It’s one thing to battle a wrong, something else to believe you will one day see it eradicated.
Bernie’s has attracted the support of major corporate donors such as KPMG and the AbbVie Foundation, built a warehouse headquarters that houses a distribution area, offices and an event space. And it has created true drop-in volunteerism, the rare chance to show up and do good during open volunteering hours.
“He’s kind of this entrepreneur who’s chosen to use his powers for good,” says Walsh. And it’s innovations like these that will push the charity to its next level: nationwide expansion. “I really do believe that Bernie’s will become a national resource,” says Walsh.
Like many driven people, Floriani has paid a price. He now makes a modest salary running the book bank but says he was only able to give up his night job “three or four years ago.” And, though he remains a devoted dad to Zoe, age 7 and Ziggy, 2, he is now divorced.
“I guess I can just say that I think there is sacrifice in everything we do,” he says. “We’re all broken.” He’s trying to find his own work/life balance, which is a challenge when work seems of life-and-death importance.
Mostly, he says, “we’re lucky that our kids have two wonderful parents, a great family. And my daughter is always thinking about other people, which I hope has something to do with the book bank.”
Kid volunteers are welcome at Bernie’s, in part because of Floriani’s hope that “it can become a place where people come to get a little perspective. I think we have a perspective problem in this country.”
Those closest to Floriani are all-in on the many levels of his big dream. “We’re really kind of starting a revolution under the cover of books,” says Davie. “We’re building a group of kids and empowering them to question and to search and wander and all those things that happen when you can escape into the pages of a book and start to dream and start to imagine possibilities.”
Like the kinds of possibilities a young Bernie Floriani might have started to envision in a house near the coal mines of Pennsylvania. “In a way,” says Brian, “I spend more time with my dad now than I ever did.”
He still ponders the question he wrestled with after losing his father: What will his own kids say about him, when he’s gone? But now, he’s beginning to imagine some answers: “I hope they say, ‘He was selfless,'” he says. “‘He did it for the right reasons.’
“‘He worked hard, and he was a great father.’
“‘He was simple but extremely complex. And he left it all out on the field.'”
He cracks a smile: “I want to be really tired when I die.”
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