Chassity Neckers and Kristen Svarczkopf of the International Book Project
When Kristen Svarczkopf was in grad school, she was working with the U.S. Department of State at its embassy in Lusaka, Zambia, helping exceptional Zambian students apply to colleges and universities in the United States.
There was one problem, however: The SAT and ACT prep books they had were severely outdated.
Svarczkopf, having volunteered at the International Book Project (IBP) as an undergraduate at the University of Kentucky, reached out to the then-director of IBP and funded a shipment of updated books to the American library in Zambia, where many students were studying.
“As always, IBP came through,” she said.
Flash forward just a few years and Svarczkopf herself is now executive director at IBP. She began work on Nov. 18, soon after the previous director accepted a position at another company.
Despite being new, Svarczkopf, 27, firmly believes in the project’s objective.
“IBP’s mission is promoting literacy in the developing world,” she said. “So, put simply, we ship books. I think there are about 775 million people in the world who are illiterate, two-thirds of whom are women. It’s the bridge from misery to hope, literacy for these people. It’s a way to help people lead healthier, wealthier lives.”
But Svarczkopf isn’t the only new face at IBP.
Chassity Neckers, 25, became the director of development just a couple of months ago.
Though the annual budget for IBP is more than $4 million, Neckers assures that the distribution between missional and administrative costs is still in line with the initial philosophy of founder Harriet Van Meter.
“What she wanted was the most money possible going to the mission, and we feel the same way about it,” Neckers said.
“When you consider the cost of shipping a book, or shipping a box of books or a palette of books, it is quite expensive,” she added.
“Ninety-three percent of our budget goes to our mission, and the other 7 percent goes to administrative costs, which is a pretty odd balance.”
IBP ships book orders all over the world in one of three sizes. The small shipments, known to staff as “the hallmark of IBP,” are boxes containing up to 35 pounds of books, which are usually sent to the most remote areas.
Then there are pallets, which can hold anywhere from 700 to 1,000 books.
Lastly, there are the sea containers, which hold 10,000 to 40,000 books.
IBP recently sent a sea container to Thailand and have plans to send shipments to both Myanmar and Sierra Leone.
But Lexington isn’t a port city, so sea containers can be very expensive to ship. Looking to the future, IBP plans to position themselves firmly in the world of e-readers, with the hope of reducing those shipping costs.
“When [devices like Kindles reach a] tipping point, hopefully we can run a couple of pilot programs and see what kind of impact we can have,” Svarczkopf said. “In particular with Amazon, it’s becoming more popular. They actually have a platform called Whispercast that lets you manage hundreds or thousands of devices over the same platform. I think it’s definitely the future of reading, and we want to be a part of it and make sure we’re ahead of the curve.”
In addition to having a used bookstore at its facility on Delaware Avenue, IBP also coordinates several events.
They are currently running a program called Bag Your Books, in which various locations across Lexington encourage book donations by providing potential donors with marked bags, each of them etched with the phrase, “This Bag Changes Lives.”
Another is called Books as Bridges, which is a pen-pal program through which IBP connects Kentucky students with international students. Neckers described the program as a cultural exchange.
“It’s just a way to get students excited about reading and about learning and about learning about other cultures,” she said.
The critical factor that lured Svarczkopf into first becoming an unpaid volunteer at IBP more than five years ago was that everybody was so clearly dedicated to the mission of promoting literacy.
One of her favorite stories she heard during those volunteer days is one that helps bring to the forefront what IBP hopes to achieve. Years ago, there was a shipment IBP sent in which the resident’s address was simply “The House Behind the Big Tree.” Despite initial skepticism, the books arrived at their rightful destination.
“And everyone was so excited, because that’s what IBP is about,” Svarczkopf said. “What we say is if you have a mailing address, we can get books to you, so we’re really trying to focus on getting books to places in the remotest areas, and the places with the greatest need. So I think that’s a really special story that I’ve always tried to keep in mind.”