Today we’d like to introduce you to Nita Whitaker.
Nita, before we jump into specific questions about the organization, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
The daughter of a public school librarian, and a blue collar hard-working father, my roots are in Louisiana. Mother worked on the bookmobile when I was in elementary school and would dispense the knowledge of which books were right for what age. Also, she had the driver take them to the rural area where she would go house to house taking books to those children to read. Ola Mae Whitaker was a literacy advocate and a brilliant mother. I only got to have her for seventeen years but she poured so much into those years.
I moved to Los Angeles in search of a career in the music business. A former Miss Louisiana, and critical care registered nurse, I knew I could work at the hospital’s Intensive care unit to support myself in the meantime. In the years since I’ve been here, I was the Female Grand champion Winner on Star Search, worked with legendary producer and mentor David Foster recording the demos for Whitney Houston’s standards, performed in four world premiere musicals, recorded four independent records, toured as featured duet vocalist with Andrea Bocelli and trumpeter Chris Botti, won the NAACP best supporting actress in a musical in 2019, and penned my first book. During all this this, I met and married a lovely man who was a wordsmith and voracious reader; whose love of books extended to music, poetry and memorization of encyclopedias. But more than that, he had an insatiable thirst for knowledge which kept him reading his entire life. The late great Don LaFontaine was a genius at his voice-over craft and became known and widely respected for having laid the template for movie trailers for which he voiced more than 5000; he inspired many with this voice talents, his great love of words, and generosity of spirit always mentoring others coming up in the field, including women. We shared 22 years amazing years and two daughters together. After he died in 2008, the Don LaFontaine Voice Over lab was created by a group that included his peers of several prominent voice actors and me; it opened in 2010 at the SAG foundation building. It serves the union members who can come there to learn and do more of that kind of work at no cost and has been very successful.
I, his newly widowed wife and mother of two wanted another way to extend his legacy of generosity and the idea was born for the non-profit. Having no idea how to begin, the strong call of carrying on something meaningful that both he and my mother loved has planted in me, I knew I was on to something. And also, I wanted to start a work that could possibly outlive me. Getting kids interested in reading when there is so much technology and television would be a challenge, but giving them free books, they could keep and call their own, the agenda was set. I called some good friends and shared this big idea and want because I had loved books too. Traveling for work often on planes, I saw less and less of kids entertaining themselves with books. I observed toddlers with iPads but rarely a book; it felt like books were being left behind. I invited these good friends who came with their own skills sets, intellect and a growing shared vision, to be a part of the non-profit by joining the board. And we began. Being a mother of two talented daughters, I understood how important reading was to the growth and development of the mind, imagination and creativity.
In honor of Don and my dear mother, in 2013 we launched In A World with Books, a 501c3 non-profit with the mission to get books in the hands of our under-served children. We want every child we can reach to have a book in the hand, their heart, and their home. To date, we have given 7700 kids new books and going strong! Though we are continuing to grow, it has been a deeply rewarding and defining work to be able to serve these children at schools, shelters, pregnant teen programs, and wherever we can reach them. Recently I was at an underserved Los Angeles school having read to a couple classes and given books, when a couple of the children saw me in the hallway and waved saying, “Hi! There’s that book lady! Thank you!”, they said. That’s what they had called my mother, and those words washed over me and warmed me. It’s those small moments that you know you are making a small difference in the life of a child. www.inaworldwithbooks.org
Has it been a smooth road?
It has not been a smooth road. What in life ever is? I have worked in healthcare and transitioned to entertainment learning those fields well. There was such a great learning curve learning how to do the paperwork to apply for a 501c3, creating a mission statement, creating a program to enhance the giving of books, and finding how and where there was a need or a crack to get in and give books. Raising funding to continue to buy new books through our partnership with scholastics has also proved challenging. The traditional fundraisers carry overhead for the cost of the venue, supplies and other talents so we have learned that the small donations, even $10-$25 can still get books. We are not the inventing the wheel, and there are organizations that do so much more but what makes us unique is the hands-on approach we enjoy using. We know that reading literacy goes a long way to impacting a life’s trajectory. I have spent at least 20 years working as one of several performers at countless charity benefits alongside my friend and mentor David Foster, and saw the work they were doing to help so many. We feel if one child can be reached and has a light turned on to reading, that is a success.
A lot of children have not been read to and in some situations, they can be in survival modes given their environments. By being and actor and a singer, along with my volunteers, we can use our additional talents to bring a book to like right before them and the excitement grows from there. I’ve had to rely on my amazing board members, their experiences, connections and resources, all pooled to create the format from which we give. This is not something I could have done alone, and without them, we could have never gotten off the ground. It has been a journey and now with COVID-19, and all of us having to be more consciously protective of exposure and more school safety in place, we are even more challenged to change our model from the one on one giving and reading to what can accommodate the new normal. But we stay determined to get new books into the hands of these children, our children.
Please tell us about the organization.
We are a non-profit, not a business and we rely on volunteers to assist when we have book giveaways. We give books to kids who don’t have access to or use a library, live transiently, or don’t have the resources to buy from a bookseller. All of the board members have not only been the founding team with me but also have given their time as volunteers at our giveaways. They are Robbie Davis, Cindy Courtier, Scotch Ellis Loring, Kim Rolfe, Kim Lewis Pankey, and Adam Jackson. My daughters, husband Scott, have also helped out along with others from our close-knit community.
What sets us apart is the way we present the books. We gather like ages and talk to them about why we read, next we show them how fun reading can be by reading a book aloud to them. Since I am an actor, we have a lot of fun bringing the books to life. At the end of our presentation, they are so drawn in and enthralled, the book feels to them like a gift, like a friend they are given to take home with them. The kids take a pledge to read for a few minutes a day which we hope will turn into more minutes, and we end by having them all say, “We Love Books!”
I am most proud that as a non-profit, we have been able to serve in varied places; from schools where there has been no books in their libraries, to shelters, preschool, teaching pregnant teens how to read to their babies, to afterschool programs, we have put a book in the hands of children who may not have any at the home or may not have been read to. We don’t want reading to become a lost art, and not only for learning but for fun, imagination, creativity as well as educational. We love books and we want children to love them too.
Currently, next month in conjunction with ICEF (Inner City Educational Fund) and my dear friend Pat Jackson Woolridge, we are planning to give 750 kids ten books each to support their learning at home through the summer. That’s an addition 7500 books in the hands and homes our children in the inner-city Los Angeles.
We are giving 2500 books this week to children at a inner city school this week, each child getting ten books to assist with continued learning at home. We are overjoyed to be able to serve these children during a time when our libraries aren’t open because of COVID, and their schools are consistently underfunded. We are adjusting our model because of that too so this will be a contactless giveaway. I also wanted to add that my dear husband Scott Perkins and my daughters Skye and Elyse LaFontaine, when available are the first to assist me with book distributions and giveaways. Grateful to have them a part of this work along side me.
Let’s touch on your thoughts about our city – what do you like the most and least?
What I love most about Los Angeles is diverse cultures of people, my amazing village of family and friends, the opportunity for growth and personal development, the health conscious mindset, the ocean and the mountains each distinctly adding to the landscape, the arts culture and entertainment plethora and the weather. What I like least is the traffic.
- Address: IN A WORLD WITH BOOKS
2658 Griffith Park Blvd #752
Los Angeles, CA 90039
- Website: www.inaworldwithbooks.org
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Personal Photo in blue by Kevin McIntyre