‘Feeding their minds’: Johnstown nonprofit operates first literacy bank

Joyce Roberts, of Newark, chooses items for her granddaughter from the shelves of magazines at the Food Pantry Network of Licking County.

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Céilí Doyle The Columbus Dispatch

NEWARK — Joyce Roberts stood at the entrance of the Food Pantry Network of Licking County, one hand cocked on her hip, the other clutching an armful of magazines as she continued perusing the newsstand, waiting for a glossy title to catch her eye.

“I take my time,” she said with a laugh. “I love these magazines.”

The 58-year-old comes to the food pantry about twice a month, often hoping to snag a copy of AppleSeeds, a children’s magazine filled with social studies and science lessons, for her granddaughter, Grace.

The stacks of National Geographic, People, TIME, Parents and Southern Living represent just a tiny smattering of the magazines that have been available, free of charge, to food bank clients during the past two years.

Local nonprofit MagLiteracy has been supplying the Newark food pantry with magazines since 2019, and has recently expanded its operations dramatically with space inside the Atrium Warehouse in nearby Johnstown.

Originally established in 2004, MagLiteracy founder John Mennell has spent decades of his adult life working with food banks, in addition to his full-time job in information technology. But after watching his own children subscribe to magazines, jumping with delight when they received their package in the mail, the Granville man wanted to create an organization that would also nourish people’s minds.

“It started with the simple idea of sharing the joy of publications and connecting to those who want to share literacy love,” Mennell said.

For years, he ran the organization out of his garage and a P.O. box, relying largely upon a network of volunteers who would help coordinate various shippings to food pantries, youth centers and job training programs throughout the country.

John Mennell of Granville started the first-ever literacy bank in Johnstown that offers magazines and reading material to people in need through his organization, MagLiteracy.
John Mennell of Granville started the first-ever literacy bank in Johnstown that offers magazines and reading material to people in need through his organization – MagLiteracy. Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch

MagLiteracy has airlifted copies of National Geographic and comic books to Inuit schools north of the Arctic Circle and even delivered Wooden Boat, a magazine for nautical enthusiasts, to a youth mentoring program in the Bronx. 

In the past few years, the organization has primarily collaborated with the Mid-Ohio Foodbank, delivering bundles of magazines to various pantries across the state, beginning with Licking County, so that folks would have more opportunities to read.

But MagLiteracy never had a real base of operations.

Until last spring, when the National Wildlife Federation in Cincinnati contacted Mennell and said it had a shipment of 100,000 Zoobooks it wanted to send to MagLiteracy to redistribute.

“My motto is to never say no,” Mennell said. “But we had 100,000 magazines to receive, and I had no way to get them and nowhere to put them.”

Through a combination of networking, leveraging and cajoling, Mennell got on the phone with Atrium Warehouse’s Vice President of Operations Joe Rieber.

“He caught us at the right time,” Rieber said. “With everything happening in the world and the pandemic in full force, we wanted to find ways to help.”

For a small storage fee, Atrium agreed to house Mennell’s magazines. Atrium had extra space in the warehouse, Rieber explained, and although it normally supports a lot of major realtors in Columbus, it also exists to support the community.

“It was game-changing for us,” Mennell said.

Armed with logistical support from Atrium staff who help stack pallet-load deliveries onto shipping trucks and offer the nonprofit full use of supplies, such as twine and shipping labels, the warehouse has essentially become a literacy bank.

A variety of publications are available through MagLiteracy.
A variety of publications are available through MagLiteracy. Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch

“One of the most mission-critical issues for us is the space,” Mennell added.

Since June 2020, volunteers have been able to drop off bundles and sort milk crates filled with magazines in one central location.

And although a local property management company has donated office space to MagLiteracy in Madison, Wisconsin, since 2014 — when Mennell was on an extended work trip there — the newfound center in Johnstown has really changed the organization’s logistical capabilities.

During the summer, MagLiteracy partnered with seven local Barnes & Noble locations in central Ohio that have agreed to donate their used magazines to the nonprofit, which has been an instrumental addition, Mennell said. The group also received its first grant, $25,000, from Quad/Graphics, a printing company based in Wisconsin, which will expand the Madison office into what Mennell hopes will be “a global literacy lab,” supporting logistics teams to distribute magazines across the world.

Usually, MagLiteracy has 50 to 60 volunteers — who Mennell has dubbed “the literacy brigade” — a number that ebbs and flows. But since the expansion into Johnstown, the brigade has grown.

A recent Ohio State University graduate, Sravya Patibandla, started a club at the school last fall called Magazines for Literacy after getting involved with MagLiteracy.

Cathy Bonham of Heath, looks over the shelves of magazines at the Food Pantry Netwerk of Licking County. A retired nurse, Bonham loves to read. She took cooking magazines to share with her daughter, who is in school to become a nurse. Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch

“One of the volunteer coordinators told me they love OSU students, but it’s hard because they always graduate and leave,” the 22-year-old said. “So I suggested they should start a club.”

Patibandla used to volunteer at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and at a local elementary school, but with the pandemic eliminating most of her former extracurriculars, she had a lot of time on her hands.

“I figured, ‘You know what? I don’t have anything else to do right now,'” she said.

After graduating in December, Patibandla is living off-campus this semester and helping the club get its bearings while she applies to medical school. She explained the club had about 16 students show up to the first meeting, and half signed up for upcoming volunteering events. OSU students cover one of the Barnes & Noble pickups at the bookstore’s Sawmill Roadlocation in Dublin.

“Our ultimate goal is to form something that can be around at OSU for years,” Patibandla said. “We really want to be able to provide students with volunteer hours, experience grant writing and getting involved in the community.”

Inside the Atrium Warehouse in Johnstown, Mennell marvels over the 15 pallets stacked up against one another. Only 20,000 magazines are being stored within the 50 or so milk crates piled onto the pallets, but it’s just another reminder of how far MagLiteracy has come as an organization.

“Our goal, with this model,” he said, “is to be able to (distribute magazines) two hours in every direction: from West Virginia to Detroit.” 

Mennell hopes to expand the nonprofit’s efforts to communities in southeast Ohio and the state’s Appalachian counties, as well.

Despite the fact this work can sometimes be a chaotic mess, Mennell is grateful for the journey and made a promise to himself, years ago, that as long as the organization still showed light there would be vitality.

“The simple answer is when you hand a magazine to someone and you see a smile — even when it’s covered up by a mask and you can only see their eyes — it is a light in the darkness,” he said.

To volunteer or make a donation to MagLiteracy, visit https://magliteracy.org/.

Céilí Doyle is a Report for America corps member and covers rural issues in Ohio for The Dispatch. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation at https://bit.ly/3fNsGaZ.