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A new life for old books

By Geoffrey Johnson

In 1995, the Rotary Club of Parole (Annapolis), Maryland, embarked on what was meant to be a one-time project. Unexpectedly, the project assumed voluminous proportions, and today, it continues to fuel the club’s vitality, involve numerous members of the surrounding community — Rotarians and non-Rotarians alike — and advance Rotary International’s commitment to enhancing global literacy and spreading goodwill. And it all began with a letter from South Africa.

“Our club had sponsored a young woman who was a graduate student at the University of Maryland,” explains Stephen Frantzich. “After she went back home, she wrote us to say she had some good news and some bad news. The good news was that she had been appointed the principal of two schools. The bad news was that there weren’t any books. Could we gather some books for her?”

The young woman had written the letter to Leonard Blackshear, a club member and a civic leader in Annapolis. Among other things, he had established the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Foundation, which honors both the author of Roots and the Gambian man whose enslavement in Africa and arrival in Annapolis in 1767 launched Haley’s multigenerational saga. Blackshear resolved to provide the principal with the books she needed. Working with other members of the club, he helped gather more than 20,000 books, which the Rotarians loaded into a container and shipped to South Africa.

Despite having sent off so many books, the Parole Rotarians discovered they had several volumes left over, and they decided to continue the project. After 27 years, the project, known now as Books for International Goodwill (BIG), has processed more than 9 million “gently used” books and shipped more than 400 containers, each holding about 20,000 volumes. Frantzich, who has served as BIG’s president since 1998 — Leonard Blackshear died in 2006 following an illness — provides a vivid way to visualize what the club has accomplished: “If you put all those books end to end, they’d go from here in Annapolis to Chicago and back again.”

BIG has shipped books to numerous countries, including Afghanistan, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, and the Philippines, as well as several in Africa, such as Kenya, Nigeria, the Republic of the Congo — and Gambia. (“That’s Kunta Kinte territory,” exclaims club member Alan Hay.) Closer to home, BIG has shipped books to various destinations in the United States, where it has supported libraries, prisons, literacy programs, and community centers.

The club’s 60-plus members meet Tuesday mornings at a local hotel, with an option for virtual attendance. Scott Gregory, the club’s 2021-22 president, has made it his goal “to grow our club to reflect the diversity of the community,” and Hay attributes the club’s vitality in part to BIG. “The project has made a big impact and sparked an element of community awareness,” he says. “Books are something that cross all kinds of boundaries, and we’ve gotten some great new members who participate.”

“All our new members have to do something with BIG,” adds Frantzich. “Some of them find it so enjoyable, they keep doing it. We don’t have to twist many arms to get people to help. People realize the benefit.” And for some of them, says Hay, it becomes “a labor of love.”

“Over the years, the project and its participants have won several awards, including a 2021 Governor’s Service Award for service and volunteerism from Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. But there were growing pains along the way: From its initial storage area in a club member’s garage, BIG moved to a former soft-drink plant and warehouse. When that facility was sold, it shifted its operations to various locations, including sites that had once been home to a hospital cafeteria, a creamery, a tobacco warehouse, and a newspaper printing plant. In 2018, after an extensive search led by Frantzich and Gregory, the project’s operations manager, BIG settled into the large warehouse that is its current home.

“Though members of the Parole club have been a vital cog in the success of BIG, “the project could not survive without a large group of volunteers with no direct tie to Rotary,” as a history of BIG, published on its 25th anniversary, acknowledged. In addition, Rotary clubs in District 7620 (District of Columbia and parts of Maryland) have participated, and Rotary clubs at the receiving end of the shipments often help to coordinate the delivery of the books once the containers arrive.

“Other partners have included schools and libraries in Maryland’s Anne Arundel, Carroll, and St. Mary’s counties, and the U.S. Naval Academy, where Frantzich, who did graduate studies at the University of the Philippines as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar, was a professor of political science for 40 years. Members of the naval academy’s Midshipman Action Group regularly lend a hand, as do local high school students as they are logging hours toward their state-mandated “required volunteerism,” which Frantzich characterizes as Maryland’s “wonderful oxymoron.”

“To finance the project, which initially relied on Rotary funding and some financial help from recipients, BIG began book sales in 1999. The sales are now held eight to 10 times a year, and each one generates between $15,000 and $18,000. Hay notes that the books, both sold and shipped, come from schools, libraries, and other places that regularly get rid of books. “And we get shelf after shelf of books from family members of people who have passed away,” he says. “We want to keep those books alive.”

“This story originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Rotary magazine.

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