One woman's mission - getting books to needy kids

Linda Barnes is "the book lady" of Downers Grove, Ill. For the past 13 years she has scoured garage sales in the Chicago suburb, sometimes hitting as many as 20 sales on a single Saturday, looking for top-quality children's books.

"It's very hard work," she says. "There are days when it's 90 degrees and humid, and I slog up the driveways."

What motivates her one-woman "ministry" is the strong belief that all youngsters need to have books in their homes at an early age. Since 1987 she has delivered approximately 36,000 books to the Lutheran Family Mission, which distributes them to inner-city children. "It's been a wonderful partnership," she says.

There was one communications lapse early on that Ms. Barnes laughs about now.

Her request, from the beginning, was to place the books in children's homes, not into day-care centers. Three years into her annual effort, though, a charity worker called to ask Barnes if it would be OK to start giving the books to individual children.

"I said, 'Whoa, I thought that's what was happening the whole time,' " she laughs.

So how did Barnes establish this personal philanthropy?

It sprang from a desire to keep giving, in some form, after her husband's sudden death. They'd always made charitable donations a part of their family budget, but as a widow she knew she could no longer write sizable checks. After hearing a representative of the Luther Family Mission of Chicago speak of its multifaceted activities, a light bulb went on. She asked if the mission would be interested in children's books, and received a resounding "yes."

The project is a perfect fit for Barnes's philosophy, which has three criteria for choosing life pursuits: Pick something you do well, something that makes things better for other people, and something you love.

"I treasure books," she says. At home she surrounds herself with a personal collection of about 2,000, not including the 45 boxes of books for charity sitting in her garage.

Her love of books was planted by her mother. "She encouraged her children to read just for fun, not because we had to learn and become famous people," Barnes says. "Even when we were in junior high school, we'd say, 'Mom, would you read to us tonight?' "

She nurtured the same sort of love of books among her own children and believes her "biblio-ministry" - which is primarily aimed at kids ages 2 to 7 - can have a positive impact on less-fortunate children.

"I've always felt that it's too late if a child never sees a book in his or her home until kindergarten or first grade," she observes. "We've lost a lot of time in sending the message that books are a part of life. The reason I like to see books go into the home is so that older brothers and sisters, moms and dads can read to their children."

Many people, this former English teacher is convinced, take reading for granted and don't realize that about a quarter of the American population is illiterate or functionally illiterate.

During her first summer hunting for used children's books, Barnes collected about 900 of them. Since then, her haul has grown considerably. Last year she acquired 3,500 books; this year, about 3,100. "I'm still pleased," she says, "That's a lot of books."

Some people, she suspects, assume she's a rich lady from affluent DuPage County. Actually, she works as a massage therapist out of a modest home desperately in need of new gutters and repairs to a leaky foundation.

Even with limited means, though, she feels "incredibly blessed," and happily spends about $1,000 to $1,500 a year buying books for charity.

For a while, her local church supported the effort with a $300 annual contribution. She couldn't continue to accept it, though, because it meant accounting for every dollar spent.

"To stop a woman in the middle of a busy garage sale and ask, 'Will you give me a receipt for $1.25?' " was both impractical and no fun, she says.

Most books she buys sold new for $5 to $20, but she usually gets them for between 25 cents and 50 cents. Those aware of her cause often offer an even better price.

Barnes says she's made a science of reading garage sale ads. If bikes are advertised, it's often an indication people might be getting rid of children's books, too. If baby clothes are for sale, though, the family's kids may still be reading juvenile books.

Sometimes Barnes finds only a few books at one location, but other times it can be a bonanza, with 90 or more at a single stop.

"I think it's a sign of our very affluent society that there are so many beautiful, high-quality books out there at garage sales," she says. "It's ironic that I'm happiest for myself and the poor children when I find books haven't been used much."

Because poor children so often receive castoff clothes and other items, Barnes places a premium on giving them nice books. Those with inscriptions are OK, but she avoids anything that's too worn or scribbled in. When she finds books about children of color, she sometimes lowers her standards slightly, since these books can be harder to come by in predominantly white suburbia.

She acknowledges many more children's books are published today for these children than when she started her book mission. Still, to make sure of she has enough, Barnes holds out about $200 each year to buy new paperbacks that tell the stories of minority youngsters.

At times, people have occasionally helped Barnes clean, sort, and deliver the books to the Lutheran Family Mission. For the most part, however, she works alone.

She's never been able to attend any of the Christmas parties where many books are distributed, and she remains largely invisible to the beneficiaries of her largess.

A cynical neighbor once commented, "Those kids probably don't even read the books."

While Barnes has no way of knowing how much the books are read, she's undeterred. "If one child every year gets changed by having books and grows up a better reader and better student, I'd say that's worth $1,200 to $1,500."

Especially encouraging are other efforts she's seen spring up to collect books for children, including one at Starbucks coffeehouses, a campaign started by Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene, and a grass-roots effort by a local librarian.

"I see this starting to be more in people's awareness," Barnes says. "I think it's exciting."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.