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Books and Blankies

At 19, Viterbi School undergraduate Robyn Strumpf has already made a huge difference in the lives of thousands of children with her literacy program.

October 12, 2006 — USC Trustee Scholar Robyn Strumpf was 12 years old when she gave away her first basket of books and a “blankie,” a hand-made quilt she had sewn herself, to children who were eager to learn how to read.
Today, that simple gesture has turned into an extraordinarily successful literacy program, called Project Books and Blankies, which provides baskets of books and a quilt to needy schools and homeless shelters throughout California. In seven years time, Project Books and Blankies has given away more than 18,000 books and raised more than $120,000 in grants and donations of books, fabrics and supplies.
Robyn Strumpf with one of her handmade quilts.

Strumpf, 19, who is majoring in mechanical engineering and political science, has spent thousands of hours promoting literacy, as well as designing and sewing colorful quilts. Among those who have received these gifts are Friends of the Family, Project Head Start, School on Wheels, Haven Hills, Boys and Girls Clubs sponsored by the Los Angeles Public Library Literacy Council, after-school literacy programs at several Hollywood middle schools, and O.N.E, which stands for Organization for the Needs of the Elderly.

Last spring, USC’s family of five elementary schools, all located nearby the campus, were the lucky recipients of Project Books and Blankies.  Strumpf gave baskets of books and quilts to Foshay Learning Center, Lenicia B. Wemmes Elementary School, Vermont Avenue Elementary School, Norwood Street Elementary School, and 32nd Street School.  

“I really had trouble learning to read when I was a kid, so Project Books and Blankies was something that was really personal to me, something I wanted to share with other kids,” she said. “My parents really helped me when I was struggling with reading by having me sit down with a book and a cozy quilt and just get comfortable with the whole thing. It worked. Today I love to read, and I want kids to know that if they do the same thing and stick with it, they’ll learn to read. It’s a really important skill to have.”

Overcoming Her Own Reading Problems
Strumpf, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley, struggled with reading until she was in third grade. “It took some work to get over the problem, but once everything clicked, I started devouring books.”
Her first “books and blankie” donation was to Head Start, using books she had persuaded Borders Books in Valencia, CA, to donate. She remembers the very first boy she ever helped.

“His name was Joel and he was in preschool, but he was so excited to be able to hold a book and read out loud,” Strumpf said.  “When I gave him a book, he held it up every which way but the correct way, and then he began to pretend he was reading.

“It was one of those counting stories, like one dog ‘woof,’ two dogs ‘woof, woof,’” Strumpf continued. “So he started reading, ‘once there was a dog, and he had a bad day.’ It was so cute, so incredibly rewarding to see the pure joy in his face as he pretended to read.  I was hooked after that.”

Strumpf, left, much younger in this photo, helps preschoolers learn their first words.

By junior high school, she was beginning to give books away to kids who were struggling to read or who simply lacked resources and positive role models.  She devoted weekends, summers, and semester breaks to making book baskets and quilts.  At Viewpoint School in Calabasas, she recruited some of her friends to help with the baskets. By her senior year, the baskets had become such a hot item that she secured a pro bono attorney to set up Project Books and Blankies as a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

The requests for book baskets and quilts started flooding in as word of Strumpf’s program spread.  The USC undergraduate was contacted by an international relief organization in South Africa, which wanted to distribute books through the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund.  Since that initial inquiry, Strumpf said she has donated “well over 1,000 books internationally.” 

In 2004, Strumpf was the recipient of the 2004 National Caring Award, which gave her an opportunity to visit Washington, D.C. and be inducted into the Hall of Fame for Caring Americans in the Frederick Douglass Museum.  And in 2005, Bank of America named her a Local Hero for her literacy work in the greater Los Angeles area.

Strong Academic Record
Strumpf’s strong academic record and phenomenal success with Project Books and Blankies earned her a trustee scholarship upon admission to USC.  With her longstanding interests in “building things” and in American politics, she chose a double major in mechanical engineering and political science.  One of her passions, she said, is to be able to design and build science exhibits “like the ones you see at the California Science Center” across the street from USC. 

In addition to taking a full load of classes this semester, she partnered with USC ReadersPlus in September to sponsor an International Reading Festival on the USC campus to spread cultural awareness and literacy. 
Preschoolers learn to count squares on a "blankie" donated by Strumpf.

The budding engineer has been written up in Points of Light: A Celebration of the American Spirit of Giving, by Robert Goodwin and Thomas Kinkade (Warner Books, 2006), which features exceptional volunteers across the country who have accomplished amazing feats. If her name is familiar, it’s because she’s also been written up in many newspapers and magazines.

For more information about Project Books and Blankies, visit Strumpf’s website at www.booksandblankies.com.