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Sarasota Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021 2 months ago

Sarasota teacher turns clothing sales into books for children

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Kaitlin Johnstone, a former Alta Vista Elementary teacher, launched Kind Cotton to help promote child literacy.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

Some of Kaitlin Johnstone’s fondest memories revolve around bed time stories. 

She would get tucked into bed and listen as her parents read about Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald’s latest adventure. 

However, when she was a kindergarten teacher at Alta Vista Elementary school, she noticed that many of her students didn’t have the same experience because of a lack of books at home. 

“I found myself consistently letting my students take books from my classroom library and keep them because literacy is just so important to me,” Johnstone said. 

However, that wasn’t a sustainable way to ensure access to literature. 

One day, she asked her husband Kevin, who works in custom apparel to combine their expertise to create a company that could spread a message of kindness while also gifting books to children in need. 

Thus, Kind Cotton, an online clothing apparel store, was launched in 2017. Kind Cotton features clothing and educational accessories with positive messages. 

The company runs with a similar model to TOMS Shoes, where each purchase ensures a book will be given to a child in need. To date, the company has given out more than 33,000 books to children across the U.S. 

“It is incredibly gratifying to to truly help communities that have a lack of resources,” Johnstone said. “We love what we’re doing. I feel like we’ve created such a community around redefining kindness and trying to do what’s right.” 

As an educator, Johnstone said she saw a lack of books in which children felt represented. In the past two years, Kind Cotton has placed an emphasis on gifting books written by Black, people of color and indigenous authors.

Kaitlin Johnstone delivers books on behalf of Kind Cotton. Courtesy photo

“Books should truly be mirrors and windows,” Johnstone said. “A mirror so that you can see yourself and feel like there’s a wonderful representation of your community and windows so you can look into someone else’s culture.” 

Johnstone has two favorite books she likes to donate: “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut” by Derrick Barnes and “I Am Enough” by Grace Byers. 

Kind Cotton also has partnered with Black Lives Matter Manasota Alliance on a literacy initiative to put more diverse books in the hands of children. More than 1,000 books were given out as part of the effort. 

Johnstone also hosted after school programs at Alta Vista where she would read a book and lead an activity. Children would then go home with the book read during the program.

She had to stop the program during COVID-19, but hopes to bring it back in the near future. Kind Cotton still donated a book a month for every children in the Alta Vista aftercare program. 

Finally, the company’s newest venture is Little Free Libraries. A concept across the U.S., Little Free Libraries typically run on a leave-one-take-one model. 

However, Kind Cotton’s libraries are entirely free. Those who need or want a book are encouraged to take one without leaving anything behind. 

“We didn’t every want anyone to feel like they have to bring a book in order to take one,” Johnstone said. “We just want students who frequent these places to take a book once a week, once a day — whenever they want a new book.” 

The first library is located in Oneco Farmers Market in Bradenton. The company plans to open another in Newtown in September. Johnstone will restock the libraries about once a week. 

At the moment, Kind Cotton does most of its business and donating in Florida. However, Johnstone hopes the company could one day become sustainable nationwide. 

For now though, she’s happy knowing she’s helping children in her community. 

“There’s just something about reading with a child and seeing them connect with their sense of wonder and creativity and critical thinking,” Johnstone said. “There’s nothing better than that to me.” 

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