Sharing Hope, One Book at a Time

Think of the Little Free Libraries you pass regularly. Are they fully stocked and ready to be discovered? Or are they empty, just waiting for a favorite book and inspiring characters to come alive?

Last year, the latter was true for a Little Free Library book-sharing box located near the Milwaukee County Jail and St. Benedict the Moor Church, home to a long-running community meal program. Barbara Cerda ’17 spotted the empty library and was concerned, because she knew a lot of families would pass by and would enjoy the reading material in a fully stocked library. Here was a new opportunity to share her love of reading with others.

“After that, every time I would clean out my books, I would take them to the Little Free Library downtown,” she says. “I recommended to friends on Facebook to take their books there, too.”

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Schools and libraries closed around Wisconsin, leaving families quarantined at home with reduced or no access to free reading material. Cerda knew Little Free Libraries could bridge the gap. She turned to her own Milwaukee neighborhood, cleaning out her bookshelves to keep nearby libraries stocked, and continued inviting friends and neighbors to help.

As more people started donating books, Cerda would make what she began calling her “book fairy runs” to pick up books and distribute at the libraries. Things quickly took off, and Barby the Book Fairy was born.

“People started giving me all their books, even when I wouldn’t ask,” she says. “People are bringing them to my house now. I set up a calendar system where people can drop them off in a box in the yard if I’m not home.”

Cerda’s three daughters have joined in, enjoying daily neighborhood walks while practicing their effective citizenship in the process.

“We fill up the wagon that we have and we walk to the little libraries near us. It’s become a routine,” she says. “It feels good to teach them that service is important and it can be fun.”

Recognizing that the increased need and demand for local access to reading material, Cerda applied for a grant from the City of Milwaukee to fund projects aiming to respond to the pandemic. Her request was denied, but her quest didn’t end there.

“When I was denied, I wrote to them. I was looking for feedback. What can I do better? I feel like that was really Alverno of me,” she laughs.

Her persistence and drive to improve clearly paid off. A few days later, Cerda was pleased to discover that her request had been reconsidered and approved.

Within just a few months, her impact magnified. So far, she has collected or purchased more than 1,500 books to keep her neighborhood libraries stocked. Coverage by two local radio stations brought more attention and donations, and she’s still going strong.

“I did not think that this is where the project would lead,” she says. “I’m so amazed by all of the support and how this project has picked up. People are interested, and people care.”

So next time you’re outside and see a Little Free Library, take a peek. You may discover your next adventure, or you may discover something even better — an opportunity to share an adventure with someone else.

“I want to inspire people to make changes in their own communities. There’s always something that we can do for someone else. That is the biggest message,” she says. “Nothing is too small. As long as you do it with kindness and with an open heart and open mind, no effort is too small.”

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