AGOURA HILLS, CALIF. — Four years ago Brandon Keefe was an ordinary red-haired eight-year-old. His parents spent a lot of time reading to him, but he wouldn't pick up a book on his own. He enjoyed school, but if given the choice, he spent his days swimming, hiking in the hills, and watching cartoons.
One afternoon, Brandon's mother, Robin, took him with her to a parent-teacher meeting. He sat in the corner, racking up points on a hand-held computer game and half listening as the adults discussed the impossible task of building a library for the 60 kids at Hollygrove Children's Home.
Books were expensive, space was tight, and the budget couldn't be stretched any further. The problems seemed insurmountable. Brandon didn't say anything that afternoon, but he thought he might have an answer. "Everybody had books on their shelves that they'd outgrown," he says. "Why not give the ones we've already read to kids who need them?"
He presented the idea to his third-grade class at Willow Elementary School in Agoura Hills, Calif. Over the next few months, Brandon's teacher and a few friends organized a schoolwide book drive. They distributed fliers, talked to every class in the school, and wrote commercials to be read at the beginning of school. Soon, they'd collected 847 new and slightly used books - biographies, mysteries, science fiction, fairy tales, picture books, how-tos, and bestseller series fiction titles ranging from Goosebumps to Nancy Drew.
Brandon wanted to surprise his mom with the books as a Christmas present she could pass on to the Hollygrove Children's Home. A few days before vacation, Robin pulled into the school driveway for afternoon car pool duty. A grinning Brandon stood on the sidewalk surrounded by dozens of boxes of books.
"That was one of the best moments of my life," Robin says. "I knew my child truly understood what it meant to give."
Mother and son took the books home and dumped them on the floor of his bedroom. "We were swimming in books," Brandon laughs. "It's one of the few times my mom didn't complain about the mess." They thumbed through all the books, checking for damage and sorting them. Hollygrove officials were thrilled. Assistant executive director Bob Morgan solicited funds from the Los Feliz Women's Club to build shelves.
He persuaded a group of retired librarians - the Book Bugs - to catalog and create a lending library. A Book Bug volunteer now makes the rounds each evening through the cottages at Hollygrove, helping each child select a book to read.
"I think the best part was seeing every kid reading something new," says Brandon. "The 20 or so hours of work I put in on that drive multiplied into 60 Hollygrove kids reading an hour every night. I got back three times my efforts - and millions of smiles."
The success of this first drive motivated Brandon and his mother to continue. During the next two years, they collected more than 2,500 more books for Hollygrove from the students at Willow.
In seventh grade, Brandon enrolled at Chaminade College Preparatory Middle School in Chatsworth. The faculty agreed to run a one-week used-book drive in conjunction with the annual Parent Teacher Association book fair.
The pitch? Clean out your shelves and bring in everything you don't read anymore before you buy new stuff. Brandon was thrown for a loop when he learned there were more than 6,000 books locked in a storeroom from the one-week effort. He enlisted 14 buddies and got to work one Saturday. "We couldn't believe we'd collected so much in so little time," he says.
Since 1993, Brandon has organized 11 book drives and distributed more than 10,000 books, many with price tags still attached. Along the way, he's picked up the Prudential Insurance Co. Community Service Initiative Bronze Medal, the Citizen of the Week award from Los Angeles radio station KNX-1070, and numerous accolades from California educational leaders and legislators.
Brandon and his mother are expanding their efforts. Robin is developing a proposal for Book Ends, a nonprofit foundation. She hopes Book Ends will not only expand the book-drive idea but will also teach other children the positive rewards that come from community service. The first-year plan calls for developing three more school libraries.
Brandon? At 13, he's a typical barefoot California kid in baggy shorts and T-shirt. Now that school has started, he'll start another book drive, trudging down hallways delivering fliers, posters, and collection boxes. "Everybody who works on these drives gets something good out of it. It's worth it."