January 27, 2020

A novel idea: A mitzvah project started 15 years ago continues to spread the joy of reading

When Robyn Strumpf was a child, she had trouble learning how to read. But with a little time, patience and help from her parents, she excelled and became an enthusiastic lover of literature. Her personal experience encouraged her, at the age of 12, to start Project Books and Blankies, a mitzvah project that’s still going strong 15 years later.

Through her nonprofit organization, Strumpf sends books and colorful quilts to libraries, literacy organizations, afterschool programs, medical facilities, women’s centers and homeless shelters. Since 1999, she’s raised more than $160,000 and donated more than 33,000 books and 300 quilts to children and adults throughout the world.

“The real goal is to help kids who are either struggling to read or don’t have a positive role model who teaches them how to read,” said Strumpf, now 27. “I was lucky. My parents helped me learn how to read, and we had books around all the time. There are kids who are struggling or don’t have the resources. I hope I’ve made that difference in their lives.” 

She said adults with limited literacy benefit, too. When she can, Strumpf delivers books and — sometimes with volunteers — reads to children and their parents. At these events, parents with reading challenges can learn skills along with their sons and daughters.

 In addition to donating books, Strumpf gives out quilts — made by her, as well as students and other quiltmakers — to personalize the reading experience. When she was learning to read, she would often cozy up with her parents under a blanket, and she said she wants to re-create this warm memory in her recipients’ lives.

Strumpf grew up in Northridge and attended preschool and Hebrew school at Temple Ahavat Shalom (TAS). As a child, she would follow her brothers to their community service projects and lend a hand. That early volunteer work, coupled with her struggle learning to read, inspired her to start the organization around the time of her bat mitzvah. 

“I learned about tzedakah growing up, and I’m part of a family that really practices it,” she said. “I was taught that it’s important to give back to the community. It made a huge impact on me. I can’t imagine having the desire [to help] without that upbringing.”

 Strumpf raises funds from private supporters and has a small collection of books in her inventory. She also solicits donations from publishers, bookstores, individuals and organizations such as the Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation. She finds some of her recipients through her own research; others contact her. When an organization reaches out to her, she looks for common ground between their mission and hers.

Local recipients of books and quilts include Midnight Mission in downtown Los Angeles, Oak Street Elementary School in Inglewood and Chatsworth High School. Worldwide, recipients include the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund in South Africa, and organizations in India, Iraq, Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union. 

Friends of the Family, an organization that serves more than 5,000 Los Angeles residents annually, was one of the first recipients of donations when Project Books and Blankies started. Executive Director Susan Kaplan said that Strumpf still donates to the organization every year during the holidays. 

“Robyn exemplifies the notion that each person has the capacity to save the world by saving one person,” she said. “It’s a remarkable representation of paying it forward. She has accomplished how much she has because of the support she got from people along her journey, and she wants to do the same thing. To be an example of that in this world, as she has been, is noteworthy and wonderful.”

Many young adults don’t keep their projects going after their bar or bat mitzvah. But Strumpf is an outlier, according to Rabbi Barry Lutz of TAS. 

“She’s the only person I know of who [continued her project],” he said. “Robyn had a creative endeavor. She didn’t go work with an organization, like many students do. She created her own. That, in and of itself, is unique.”

Lutz said that tikkun olam (healing the world) is a major focus at TAS’ school. “We really encourage kids not just to raise money or contribute from gifts they receive, but to do something hands-on. We want them to be engaged and make a difference in other people’s lives.” 

Although Strumpf now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and works full time as an IT consultant, she still finds time to run the organization and regularly visit its headquarters in the Porter Ranch area. Project Books and Blankies is based in her parents’ home, and it’s mostly a family operation. Her father and mother collect and send out the donations, one of her brothers is the webmaster and another is the chief financial officer. Strumpf also finds volunteers through her alma mater, University of Southern California, and asks her friends for help. 

Strumpf believes her work with Project Books and Blankies continues to make a positive contribution to the lives of adults and children alike. She recalls when, at one of her first donation sites, she met a child named Joel, who didn’t know how to read. She was touched by his enthusiasm. 

“He held the book every way possible, except the correct way, and proceeded to make up a story to go along with the pictures,” she said. “It was an adorable and heartwarming moment that I will never forget. Joel had discovered the magic in books. It was so clear to me that if kids are given resources and encouragement, there is no limit to what they can achieve.”

Seeing children like Joel, who want to discover the joy of reading, encourages Strumpf to continue her work. 

“I have a full-time job, and working on this takes additional time, but it’s so important to me,” she said. “I look back on old pictures and see how happy those kids were to be reading by themselves or with others. That’s the reason I keep doing it.”