Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2005 | People

Book Lover: Kyle Zimmer

By Tina Owen

A chance encounter with an eight-year-old boy in Ohio convinced Kyle Zimmer that she’d made the right decision in giving up a successful law career to follow her heart.

"Ma’am, do you have any books in Spanish?” inquired the boy in his polite Southern manner. Asked whether he was learning the language at school, he replied: “No, but I know it’s out there, and this is my big chance.”

Thanks to Zimmer, 82BA, that young boy and thousands like him now have access to books that open up for them new horizons and opportunities. First Book, the nonprofit organization that Zimmer and a couple friends set up in 1992, has provided 30 million high quality new books to underprivileged children.

Zimmer, of Silver Spring, Maryland, grew up in a family where books were “absolutely central to our lives.” But after volunteering to mentor school children in Washington, DC, she was shocked to learn that many children live in homes where the only book may be a telephone directory.

Realizing that her law career engaged her head but not her heart, Zimmer decided to channel her business and organizational skills in another direction. First Book operates through 245 local advisory boards, whose volunteer members help raise funds in their communities and distribute grants to preschool and afterschool programs serving the most disadvantaged children. Its National Book Bank provides a convenient way for publishers to donate excess books.

Recently, First Book also started arranging for paperback runs of classic books to be printed. “That project has brought the power of collective purchasing to bear on behalf of children who’ve never had these books before,” Zimmer says proudly.

Although she still uses business-like terms such as “infrastructure” and “growth trajectory,” Zimmer’s heart is fully engaged in her second career. She loves visiting the children who benefit from the passion and dedication of all the staff and volunteers involved in First Book.

“When you look in the eyes of kids who are reading the first books they may have ever owned, you can see how hungry they are—for books and for all that the world has to offer,” she says. “That boy in Ohio was seeing himself as more than a poor country kid. He saw himself as part of a much bigger world, and he knew books could take him there. That’s inspirational.”