Building Community and Creating Second Chances
“This place has a feeling that you have to experience,” Ben Wilborn says as he helps unload a van packed with trash bags full of books. The place he’s referring to with his contagious enthusiasm is a former freezer warehouse located behind Feeding America Southwest Virginia. Instead of storing food, the 13,000-square-foot warehouse now acts as home base for TAP Books.
TAP Books set up shop in 2019 as our agency’s latest social enterprise. The program, which sells donated books online, helps to fund TAP programs while creating jobs and giving disenfranchised people the chance to build job skills. Many employment opportunities exclude those with a background of hardship, whether that’s an arrest record, homelessness, or simply growing up without an emphasis on education. Ben hopes to break this mold through TAP Books, and he’s well on his way.
Building a foundation
Armed with a background in online sales, Ben arrives at the warehouse every morning at 6 a.m. and spends a few hours readying massive boxes that hold between 800 and 1,000 books to be scanned and organized. He also spends time scheduling volunteers, driving a forklift to move pallets stacked with books, training employees and volunteers in different aspects of warehouse operations, and coordinating donations.
When Ben isn’t in the warehouse, he’s often behind the wheel of the TAP Books van picking up donations. Books come in from across Virginia—public and university libraries donate surplus books, downsizers donate personal libraries, and community partners hold book drives. Ben also scans yard sales and estate sales for any leftover books ready to be donated. All of these donations require a lot of hands to scan, organize, sell, and ship. TAP Books provides those jobs and the chance build skills.
Ben is proud to oversee a program like TAP Books because of the opportunities it offers. Most TAP Books employees have things in their pasts that make it hard to get a job; however, where other employers may see red flags, Ben sees potential. “You gain a new perspective and work ethic when you go through hardship,” he says, “You work differently when you’ve slept on a bench. You become more innovative.”
Ben’s goal is to make job opportunities with a livable wage available to those who need a boost. Even with the program’s short history, he has several stories of people coming to TAP Books as volunteers and gaining skills as they work up to employment. Some even come to TAP Books through other TAP programs.
While Ben hopes to eventually have six permanent full-time employees, it’s important to him that TAP Books offers a way for employees to build skills and move up to other jobs. Turnover can make his job more difficult, but he appreciates what former employees have brought to the program and enjoys playing a role in their future successes.
Part of the community
Ben has another vision for TAP Books: to be an asset in the community. The warehouse has books stacked almost two stories high—every few months, it uses that inventory to give back. In December 2019, Ben and volunteers loaded hundreds of books into a van and went door-to-door in several Roanoke neighborhoods to give out children’s books before Christmas. “Jackets get too small, electronics break, but the lesson that you get from a book never goes away,” he told WDBJ7 while making deliveries. He wants to continue events like this throughout the year. In March 2020, TAP Books will choose a local elementary school to visit to read to students and give out books in celebration of Dr. Seuss’ birthday.
Ben also oversees the small free library in the lobby of our administrative building at 302 2nd Street. He believes that access to books and education shouldn’t be blocked for anyone unable to afford books at a store or unable to get a library card.
As Ben, wearing a t-shirt, works in the former freezer in the middle of winter, he’s warmed by a coffee and the constant motion of keeping the warehouse, its staff, and its volunteers operating smoothly. With seeming never-ending energy, he’s attempting to help build something special from the ground up. The warehouse is so full of noise, it can be hard to hear much, but the roar of the industrial heater, the hum of the forklift moving huge boxes of books, and the constant beeping of the scanning guns are all, to Ben, the sounds of helping the community. Beep – a second chance given. Beep – a child inspired by a new favorite book. Beep – another neighbor pulled from hardship. “It’s about doing good,” he says, and it’s what keeps him working hard every day.
Ben envisions a day when every shelf in the TAP Books warehouse is full. To get there, he knows that he needs the support of the community. Right now, TAP Books runs on donations and volunteers. All book donations are accepted. To support TAP Books by browsing its for-sale inventory, visit the pop-up sale on March 21, 2020. For information on donating or volunteering, visit our website.