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Bus driver shifts gears to deliver books during pandemic

Jennifer Frances has driven Bess the Book Bus since 2003 and handed out over 850,000 books to kids around the USA. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she's adapted.

TAMPA, Fla. — It’s safe to say 2020 looks nothing like Jennifer Frances expected. 

By now, she was planning to be cruising through the mountains, handing out books to kids from Bess The Book Bus. Instead, she and Bess are parked at home like everyone else.

“This week I would’ve been in North Carolina,” she said. “The books are still on the way up there. I’m just not there.”

The book-loving Frances started Bess The Book Bus locally in 2003 with the goal of getting books in the hands of kids all over the United States. By 2009, she was traveling all over that nation giving away donated books. She’s been everywhere but Alaska and Hawaii in Bess and has handed out (she guesses) 850,000 books in all. Bess is nearing 250,000 miles on the odometer.

“I do need to take a quick trip over to the dealership because I think I have an alternator going,” said Frances, who has three kids of her own. “This one gets a lot of wear and tear. I need to get that fixed quickly because I’m back at a school on Wednesday.”

To adapt to the forced changes arising from state shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic, Frances has come up with an enriching Plan B to her annual road trips. She crafted “grab bags” for kids who are stopping at Tampa Bay area schools to pick up meals with their families.

“I put two for three books in each bag sometimes a T-shirt, a few crayons, a little activity book, and those are sanitized,” she explained. “When the parents come through the lunch line they’ll drive first to pick up the food for the kids and then they’ll stop and pick up a grab and go bag.”

Frances was forced to cancel her tour of north Florida, Louisiana, and Texas in March 2020 out of an abundance of caution. At the time, COVID-19 was ramping up in the United States. She decided to stay home so as to not potentially become part of the reason why the virus spread.

“At first it was scary for me though because this is about a love of books and sharing that love with kids and families for me. So, the thought of not being able to do that was somewhat daunting at the beginning but I never doubted that there would be a way to get books to families,” she said.

She’s shipped books to six different states this year and to a Navajo Nation. In all, she’s sent out over 10,000 books since March 20. About 4,000 of those have stayed in Tampa Bay. She also started a virtual book tour where kids can connect with her online. Frances has been making stops at schools like Sheehy Elementary quite often. She’ll return there on Wednesday.

The outreach looks different right now but her goal – inspiring kids with stories – hasn’t changed at all.

“I think it’s so important for our kids to know right now that there is still a connection to the lives they had before this all started and stories are a powerful way to do that,” she said.

“You ready to get back on the road?” I asked.

“I am actually,” she said with a smile.

Frances hopes to get back on the road in 2020 with a long-term goal of checking Alaska off her list in 2021. Right now, visiting Hawaii looks economically unfeasible, but she’d like to hit all 50 states at some point.

Until then, she’s happy to hand out books anywhere and anyway possible.

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