The Side Effects of Spreading Joy

I’ve often thought that if I had to stay in an emergency shelter due to some natural disaster, I’d volunteer at that shelter. It would sure beat sitting there, feeling terrified or in shock or completely and utterly helpless. What can I do? Scrub toilets? Do paperwork? Read to children? Pass out toothpaste? Anything?

I’m now even more convinced that I’d want to do that. I created a project for myself recently, and it was even more satisfying than I anticipated. I learned so much from it. Much of what I learned I wasn’t expecting.

It occurred to me that due to the pandemic, a lot of people would be struggling to give gifts this holiday season. Having identified a problem in my mind, I set about trying to think of ways to solve it. Gazing out the window at my little free library (I do that more than I care to admit), it occurred to me that books make great gifts. But I’d want people to be able to give brand new books, and they aren’t cheap.

Okay, first I needed to obtain the books. So I set up a Gofundme campaign, asking for donations. I set a goal of $500. It started off slow, because folks were more focused on the election and all the stress that was causing. But once that was behind us, people really became generous.

When I got 550 dollars, I was thrilled! I started doing research as to where I could get the biggest bang for my buck. I asked people on the Little Free Library Stewards Facebook group, and got a lot of great suggestions about bulk sellers and scholastic type organizations. There are dozens of publishers out there if you search.

Finally, I settled on Usborne Books, because Jordan, their independent consultant, contacted me and said that for every dollar I spent, they’d give me an additional 50 cents worth of books! So my 550 dollars turned into 825 dollars just like that! Woo hoo! And I have to say that the quality of the books I received was outstanding. (Here’s Jordan’s webpage, if you’re interested in working with her.)

With Jordan’s expertise, I was able to focus mainly on book collections where the individual books could stand alone. I didn’t want books that required reading book one before you could move on to book two. But book collections are much more affordable per unit than individual books are. After I placed the order, two big boxes of books arrived at my door in no time flat. They were for a variety of age groups. I was so excited!

And then, after that, another 50 dollars rolled in. What to do? Get more books, of course, but where in this short timeframe? I went to the dollar store and got a bunch there. Then I happened to look at the books at Costco, and found some collections there. Not as cheap as I’d like, but not bad. So I threw in a collection of Dr. Seuss books and a collection of Newberry Award books, such as Charlotte’s Web. I received a few donations of new books as well.

I went home and piled all the books on the dining room table. 180 books in all. Holy cow. That’s a lot of books. The pictures below are only a few of those.

I knew I didn’t want to gift wrap the books in advance, because every child, every person, is different. I also knew that parents would prefer looking at the books to make sure they were appropriate to their values and their child’s interests and reading level. But the theme of this whole project was that books make good gifts, so I decided to cut some Costco wrapping paper to the proper size for each book, and put that wrapping paper inside the book. Once the gift was chosen, they would then have the wrapping paper to wrap it with.

Speaking of the appropriateness of this project, I wanted to appeal to the widest audience possible, so I made sure that none of the books were religious or political. And I also used neutral, or, at the very least, winter-themed wrapping paper. These books don’t have to be Christmas presents. They could be for Hannukah, Kwanza, Winter Solstice, Festivus, Birthdays, whatever. That was very important to me.

Not for nothing, cutting wrapping paper for 180 books is quite the undertaking. Yes, I watched Netflix as I worked. Even so, thank goodness Dear Husband lent a hand, or I’d probably still be sitting there, aching back and all.

Here’s the part of the project where I started to panic. How would I get these books into the hands of people who needed them the most? This was more of a challenge than I first thought.

Not even in my wildest dreams would 180 books leave my little free library within a month, unless I really advertised. Unfortunately, if I spread the word on community forums, I would also risk attracting book resellers. These resellers have been known to steal the entire contents of little free libraries, and then sell the books on Amazon. That would defeat my purpose of getting these books to people who couldn’t afford to buy books. All my work would have been for naught. So I would need to get creative.

Where would I find families in need? Hmm… my first thought was the local women’s shelter. And then after listening to a heartbreaking story on NPR, I also thought of the food bank. I contacted both agencies, and they were quite happy with my idea. So I divided the books into 3 piles: 60 books for the women’s shelter, 70 for the food bank, and 50 for my little free library.

The women’s shelter was easy. I simply dropped off the box of books with the director. They were very happy to have them. Done.

The food bank turned out to be a lot of fun. We were allowed to set up a table, outside, next to the food bank line, and we could talk to people as they came in. “Would you like to give someone a book? It’s free.”

There was a bit of a feeding frenzy at first. Some people took more books than they had children. I had to put a stop to that. I wanted to spread the love. Some people were really shy, and had to be encouraged to take one for each child. Others thought they’d have to pay for them.

A great deal of the people in line at the food bank barely spoke English, and were thrilled to get books so their children could assimilate into the culture in advance of going to school. And reading those books to the children would help them practice the language, too. I could just imagine a mother sitting with her toddler, saying, “See? In English, a dog says ‘woof’.”

In about 2 hours time, the food bank books were gone, and I had a silly smile on my face. Now I was left with just the 50 books for the little free library. I didn’t want to put them out all at once, because of book resellers. I decided to put out about 8 at a time and replenish as needed.

Unfortunately, they weren’t moving. I even did a big sidewalk chalk sign that said, “Books make great gifts!”. Still nothing. Sigh.

Finally, I decided to post information about it on my little free library’s Facebook group page and hope for the best. After chatting with a few of the regular patrons, they asked for some books for families they were trying to help out. They gave me the ages of the children in question, and I put together packages for them to pick up. It was fun, choosing the books for each child. I felt like Santa’s helper.

I also reached out to a few local educators that I know, and asked them to spread the word among parents. I have about 30 books left, and that’s a workable number for my little free library. It’s amazing. I’ve given out 150 books so far!

As I said, this project has taught me much. First of all, I’m getting back just as much joy as I’m giving out. This has been a truly gratifying experience. Second, I’ve met a lot of amazing, generous, and hardworking people that I would never have talked to otherwise, and that has been a thrill during all this isolation.

That leads me to the biggest lesson of all. I’ve been spending a lot of time, just like everyone else, stressing out about the pandemic, the social unrest, the political unrest, and the environment. I have been in a very dark place, as have we all. But while I worked on this project, I didn’t focus on any of that. I didn’t think of Trump even once. I just poured everything I had into this positive act, and I can’t begin to describe how good it felt.

So my recipe for getting out of a dark place is to shine a light. If you do that, it will come back to you. And there’s nothing like it. Those who are obsessed with greed and hate have no idea what they’re missing.

Happy holidays, dear reader.

An attitude of gratitude is what you need to get along. Read my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

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