Noe Valley Voice April 2001

Sam Backer of Church Street, with the full support of his cat Grain, has worked out a deal with a local hospital to start a books-on-tape lending library for sick kids. He's also talked Panasonic into donating tape players. Now all he needs are your old tapes. Photo by Beverly Tharp

Sam's the Man with the Plan

By Doug Konecky

Sam Backer looks like Tom Sawyer without the straw hat. He's a local Noe Valley success story--an entrepreneur with a golden idea to supply books on tape to kids stuck in hospitals awaiting anything from a tonsillectomy to a second cancer surgery.

He's had to tie up a few loose ends, like how to acquire the tapes and the Walkman players to listen to them on, and how to design a little hospital library to keep track of the hardware and software which will have to be manned by volunteers, often a different person each day. This would be a daunting task for any CEO, but Sam has had one more problem: to convince hospital administrators that he is on the level. Sam Backer is 9 years old.

"He's always been like this," says Wendy Backer, Sam's mom, in the family room of the Church Street home the Backers have owned since 1996. "The idea just came to me," Sam says. "When I was sick, I liked to listen to books on tape. It made me feel better."

Wendy and husband Dean, who is a set designer for the Nash Bridges show, seem willing to wind Sam up and let him go. Wendy's background is in corporate new business development, and she is helping Sam design the nuts and bolts of the project, but make no mistake about it: Sam is the driving force. It's hard to imagine saying no to this boy.

"Hi, I'm Sam Backer. You're free to come over now," he says on the telephone. I don't think twice.

Sam started by picking a hospital: California Pacific Medical Center (where he was born) with a 30-bed facility for children. Volunteer coordinator Meg Hillie was enthusiastic about Sam's books-on-tape library idea. She had Sam write her a proposal letter. Then she sent him a return letter promising the use of California Pacific to try out his program if he could figure out the details.

Armed with her agreement, Sam started calling large bookstores. He got his first taste of reality when he spoke to Barnes and Noble. They told him they couldn't donate any tapes but that they would sponsor a book fair, taking 90 percent of the profits. "I figured it out," Sam says. "I'd do a lot of work and only make a little money."

Eventually he took his idea to Tracy Wynne at Cover to Cover bookstore on 24th Street, and she showed him how to apply for a grant and get in touch with places like the Listening Library at Random House. In the meantime, Wendy and Sam made contact with Rick Stoff at Audiobook Publishers Association, who donated a box full of children's cassette tapes he had collected. Sam and his mom began cataloging them, including a capsule review of each from information they found on the Internet.

Then the grant came through: On March 10, in a special ceremony at a fancy restaurant, the Northern California Children's Booksellers Association awarded Sam a "Literacy Grant" of $500, noting that he was the youngest person to ever win such an award.

Other companies gave a little here and a little there, so by late March, Sam had gathered nearly 150 books on tape--or "audiobooks," as they're also known-- for kids 0 to 18. With the donation of 25 portable tape players and five boom boxes from Panasonic West, his program ("Listening Kids") was ready to launch.

If it is difficult to keep this in perspective, remember: Sam Backer is in third grade. He loves gardening, collecting gems, snowboarding, and Play Station II. He plays the recorder and loves fooling around with his 1-year-old brother, Miles. But he is also putting in 20 hours a week on his idea, and is already making plans to branch out to Oakland Hospital when the Cal Pacific program is up and running.

Where does his generous spirit come from? Maybe from his family, or his school (he attends Brandeis Hillel Day School on Brotherhood Way), or maybe it's just plain Sam.

Looking at him, you see a regular kid with an unbelievable smile who looks like he could make a strong run for the Board of Supervisors by fifth grade...if he weren't such a sweetheart of a kid.

"I think he's just got an old soul," Dean Backer says, shaking his head. "He understands things already."

Lots of people have ideas, but Sam has a plan. If you'd like to help out with donations of any kind, including time-- drop him an e-mail at Sam Backer will have you believing very soon that kids of all ages can make a big difference.