Viral Social Post Thrusts Averett Alumna into National Spotlight

Posted on April 20th, 2021 by Matt Bell

Averett University alumna Jennifer Williams ’90 received national news attention in March after a social media post about her book donation program suddenly went viral.

It all started on March 2 when Williams, an Averett psychology graduate and teacher, donated to Chatham Elementary School in Chatham, Va. on Dr. Seuss Day. The donation was made through her book donor program, “Joy of Reading – Danville,” which gives away thousands of books annually.

“I give to kids because they are my passion, not to mention I found a tangible way to help a child be more successful by providing books to read and enjoy,” Williams said.

Over the course of the last three years, Williams has donated over 64,000 books with a goal of giving away one million copies through Joy of Reading. She has provided a multitude of books across all genres to children, adults, students, organizations, inmates, book clubs and schools.

“A million [books] because why not do something that is challenging to you, your faith, your focus and your finances. It’s easy to talk about things you wish would change, it’s an entirely different matter to actually sacrifice things to help make them better,” Williams said.

A Pittsylvania County resident for the last 26 years, Williams taught in Pittsylvania County Schools and Danville Public Schools for a combined 28 years. While she taught elsewhere in the city and county, she chose Chatham Elementary for the annual book donation because it is the closest Title 1 school to her – a designation she says is given to schools with a higher poverty level.

“This was my third year doing this on Dr. Seuss’ birthday. I buy books all year long, and then on his birthday give them away at Chatham Elementary,” Williams said.

During her teaching career, Williams said she noted repeatedly that children who had limited access to books rarely did well academically. She would read stories to her students who would ask if they could keep them, often referring to them as ‘that cool story.’ To combat the issue of limited book access, she would give them to her students.

“I decided to give away books when over-and-over kids I tutored asked could they keep ‘that cool story,’” Williams said.

The event in March was covered by local television news station WDBJ7, based in Roanoke, Va., which Williams said was not out of the ordinary. She was first covered by the station for her book giveaway efforts in 2018.

What was out of the ordinary was a phone call from CNN three days later.

“The reporter said, ‘So it’s my job to watch for a story that gets tons of hits. You have tons of hits,’” Williams said. She then learned the post the reporter was referring to was on Instagram, and according to Williams had received over 2 million hits. Until that moment, she was completely unaware of the social media post.

The post contained a photograph of Williams handing over a box of books with a caption in the photo that read, “‘Book Lady’ Is Giving Away Hundreds Of Books With The Goal To Hit 1 Million [sic].”

Williams agreed to do the story with CNN, and even more national news networks and publications began reaching out.

“So [the CNN interview] was Friday, March 5. Then that following Monday, Southern Living called. Then it was the Washington Post, and after that, I received a call for The Kelly Clarkson Show. On March 21, I did a story for a local FOX station, and two of their affiliates picked up the story,” Williams said. She noted The Kelly Clarkson Show and story for The Washington Post are still in preliminary stages. She was also interviewed by A Plus, a media company founded by actor Ashton Kutcher and sponsored by Chicken Soup for the Soul Entertainment.

Williams described the newfound attention she is receiving as awkward.

“Honestly, it’s made me feel awkward. I strongly feel God called me to give books to others. When I am obeying someone who asks me to do something, I am not sure I deserve a ton of praise. Nobody clapped when I took out the trash as a kid. But, I am learning to navigate people cheering for me doing my part to make the world better. My friends have been very supportive and kind,” Williams said.

In addition to her degree from Averett, Williams earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Lynchburg. In 2019, Williams was awarded the Frank Campbell Service Award at Averett. She is married to her husband, Scott.

Williams accepts good conditioned used books at her front porch. She also accepts money via PayPal to an account used to buy books only for low-income kids. There is also an Amazon Wish list, where books can be purchased and shipped directly to her.

“I buy hundreds of new books each year. I donated 700 new books to Angel Tree kids in our region last fall,” Williams said.

“I often give new books to birthday bags given by The CAKE Initiative. Any way someone wants to give, I can work with. I am committed to giving others a great story. I run a book club for female inmates at the Danville City Jail where we have read 31 novels. It’s been life changing for many of them to be gifted a new book by a stranger who understands how magical books can be.”

“So many Averett alumni are doing great things for their community. We are so proud that Jennifer continues to be a catalyst for positive change in the Danville and Pittsylvania County community beyond her time as a student here at Averett,” Averett Alumni Director Dan Hayes said.

“Reading can help you learn nearly anything, go places you physically can’t and visit time periods you can’t go to. Being able to read can do so much for you whether if it’s in a leisure setting or for learning,” Williams said.

No matter how much attention she receives, Williams said she remains committed to her mission to give away books to anyone who wants them.