NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Hundreds of thousands of Tennessee children get free books in the mail every month from birth until kindergarten. The stories inside may be invaluable, but when families move what's on the outside is giving volunteers a huge headache.
The Governor's Books From Birth Foundation, part of Dolly Parton's Imagination Library, mails with non-profit, bulk-rate postage. If the postal service can't find the family it's addressed to, it won't mail it back.
For years, volunteers would pick up books stuck at post offices to make sure they aren't lost.
"Whether to find out if the family has moved, is it an incorrect address, how can we ensure that this gets into the hands of children," said Ellen McCollum with the Montgomery County Imagination Library.
Recently the USPS, facing major debt, started cracking down.
U.S. Postal Service spokesperson David Walton said Friday it isn't fair to allow Books From Birth to pick-up undeliverable mail for free, when other groups can't. Walton said the only way around this is to pay for higher postage to have books they can't deliver returned.
That means all the books now stuck at post offices across the state have to be paid for or they will be destroyed.
"To think that someone is going to take this book that a child could benefit from, be read to, it's just going to go through a shredder," McCollum said.
Books From Birth President, Theresa Carl, called the development "concerning" by phone Friday. She says this decision affects books being delivered to all of Tennessee's 95 counties.
Carl says $3.104 million of funding comes from tax payers, which only pays for half of the 213,000 books mailed out monthly. The other half comes from fundraising in each county. She estimates 2% of their books end up undeliverable every year. That means annually 51,120 books could end up in shredders.
In Montgomery County, they estimate 70 books are being shredded every month, but they expect that number to grow.
"For us to pay for books that don't go anywhere and nobody benefits from is very disheartening because we work very hard to get our donor dollars," said Elizabeth Black who also volunteers with the Montgomery County Imagination Library.
"It's something that we can't change. That we can't locally do anything about so that's what makes it even harder," Black went on to say.
Books From Birth officials say paying to get the books back is based on weight. It only costs $2 to buy and send every book, but buying them back would make the program lose thousands.
Volunteers say the most important thing people can do is remember to change their address if they move.
Carl hopes having U.S. Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander meet with the Post Master General will help clear this up.