In the middle of March, children’s book author and philanthropist Alane Adams started a read-along series to adjust to the new socially distanced normal. Known for her “Legends of Orkney” fantasy book series, the Southern-California-born writer has carved out a niche with her stories for tweens and middle-grade readers. But while Adams now takes on a range of zany voices to bring her books to life, she previously served as the long-running CFO of her family’s scrap metal recycling business alongside her brothers.
“I wanted to be an English major, but my family convinced me to become an accountant so I could help run the family business,” Adams told me in our recent conversation. Raised in Whittier, a town with Quaker roots southeast of downtown Los Angeles, Adams graduated from USC in 1983 and joined Adams Steel in the late 1980s. Early on, Adams says, it was a big deal if her company did a few million in sales in a year. Over time, the company expanded, and by 2007, she took the business through a merger, rebranding as SA Recycling, which now does $1 billion in sales.
From Number Crunching to All Things Books
We often write about career transitions leading to more bandwidth for other interests, including escalating philanthropy. When Adams retired in 2008, she first went to East Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. And when she returned, she launched the Rise Up Foundation, which strives to improve the lives of children and families living in poverty and difficult circumstances. She hooked up with UNICEF and started traveling and funding projects in the developing world. “I went to Laos, Angola, Nepal, and really saw firsthand the issues endemic poverty creates in countries and communities,” Adams says.
Despite these challenges, though, she noticed that students in these remote schools with mud floors and thatched roofs were also deeply captivated by their teachers because of the power of reading. Perhaps Adams was especially attuned to this because of her lifelong passion for storytelling. Even when she was working in the family business, she says she wrote when she had free moments, stuffing her work in cabinets and boxes. But when she retired and her youngest son suggested writing a book that he’d want to read, a lightbulb went on.
Today, her Rise Up Foundation helps young readers, parents and teachers cultivate a love for reading, writing and literacy. In the last few years, the foundation has donated over $650,000 in grants, classroom supplies, new books, and other funding to schools and teachers in need, including partnering with the national nonprofit First Book in Washington, D.C., which provides books to kids in low-income households, making sure they have the chance to catch the reading bug early. Adams is a steady backer of DonorsChoose, which allows individuals to donate directly to public school classroom projects. Rise Up also works with places like Teach Your Heart Out and Reading is Fundamental.
For the past two years, Rise Up has worked in disaster relief as well, partnering with First Book initially in the Clearlake area after the Northern California wildfires. Rise Up donated $35,000 to replace books that were lost in the community, and Adams herself donated copies of her books and did 12 school visits, as well. She’s did similar work in Houston after Hurricane Harvey, and just this winter, Adams and the Rise Up Foundation brought 20,000 new books—valued at approximately $160,000—to hurricane-affected communities in northwest Florida. This hands-on model of donating time as well as money—makes Adams’ philanthropic approach particularly unique.
“Over the last five years, the foundation has really come together, with me and my assistant, funded 100 percent by me. I love making that personal impact,” she explains. All told, Adams has been to some 30 states, going to schools, meeting with kids, and cultivating more young readers and learners. “If I’m getting excited, so are you. Books are cool, and reading is, too,” she adds.
Innovating with Crowdfunding and Meeting a Crisis
But while Adams started to realize her ability to promote literacy as an individual and through funds, she also tapped into the power of social media. She got involved with #ClearTheList, a social campaign launched by Courtney Jones, a young Texas elementary school teacher concerned with the financial burden that teachers confront when setting up classrooms at the start of the year. The average educator spends at least $479 of their own money every year to stock their classroom, according to data from the most recent National Teacher and Principal Survey, which was conducted by the Department of Education for the 2015-2016 school year. Jones partnered with DonorsChoose, which estimated that the total cost to clear the lists is around $1.3 million.
#ClearTheList began on Facebook, migrated to Twitter, and ultimately took off with the help of celebrities and influencers on Instagram who adopted a few wish lists to share with their followers. Adams herself used her platform to amplify the hashtag. Inspired by the movement, she also realized that unused credit card points could be used as payment on Amazon, and committed 1 million rewards points toward teachers’ wishlists. Through #pointsforteachers, she is spreading the message to others, hopefully galvanizing another movement that provides teachers with the vital resources they need to do their jobs.
“There’s a tribe of teachers that follow me. So when you’re asking people for donations, people can help out in the form of points. I’ve probably helped 140 teachers so far this year, and 500 teachers last year through #ClearTheList. It’s easy to find teachers on social media who have their Amazon Wish lists on their profile,” Adams explains.
Meanwhile, when the pandemic hit, Rise Up Foundation quickly responded with COVID-19 emergency relief grants to teachers in the three-figure range. Adams also gave $25,000 to DonorsChoose. In this new normal of social distancing, Adams, like others, has been forced to rethink her philanthropy, though her preference is for hands-on work. “Well, you can’t really scale me going to school, with me usually hitting about 100 schools per year. The pandemic made me really stop. I can’t travel for maybe a year or longer, so what do I do? So now I’m working on trying to take what I do and make it into an interactive video lesson to be available in classrooms,” she explains.
Looking forward, Adams says she plans on staying lean. Having run a company for 25 years, she told me she likes the freedom and flexibility she has now. As for her author visits, though, Adams aims to model what a good author visit should look like and make this material available to every school in the country. “It’s all about inspiring a love of reading,” she adds.