There was nothing extraordinary about this meeting at the Fox Lane High School.
It was a routine assembly of teaching staff and administrative officials that met once every week to discuss student and faculty development matters.
Except this one was somewhat different in the sense that David Whalen, an English teacher, who typically didn’t attend these sessions, was in attendance this day.
Towards the end, Ken Mitchell, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, raised the issue of a plethora of outdated school textbooks. Did anyone know of any outfit that could possibly find use for them, he asked?
Mr. Whalen knew that these textbooks would be consigned to the dustbin, where they’d languish in landfills, or be sold for recycling unless they had takers. So, he proffered to help.
An adviser to Youth in Action, a school student club—one with the motto of making the world a better place through grassroots action—he saw a perfect match between this club and the books.
“If you have textbooks that are obsolete, no longer in line with our curriculum, but are in good condition and you’d like to dispose of them, please develop an inventory,” wrote Mr. Mitchell in an inter-departmental memo.
Two daunting tasks confronted Mr. Whalen. Not only would he have to seek an appropriate avenue for channeling them but also find a temporary storage space until such time that the books found another home.
A few days after the meeting, Mr. Whalen got in touch with school’s math department coordinator, Richard Sgroi, telling him, he’d like to pick his brain. “He told me that he’d be happy to stow them away in his closets,” he said.
“The storage really wasn’t an issue since we have a great deal of space in the new building. Any storage inconvenience is certainly outweighed by the satisfaction of knowing that these unused books will find a new home in a worthy location,” said Mr. Sgroi in an e-mail response.
Closets that usually stocked classroom supplies were now being converted into ad hoc refugee camps for old books, awaiting departure—which, wouldn’t be until more than two years later, in early 2008.
Soon after the meeting, Mr. Whalen threw himself with dizzying excitement into a meticulous Internet research, his goal being to ferret out any organization that’d want these used textbooks.
“I knew I had to get the books to someone. But I didn’t know to whom exactly,” he said.
Each time his Google search pulled up the names of agencies whose mission came close to what he was looking for, he jotted down their e-mail addresses and phone numbers. Next, he’d get on the phone and speak with each of them, hoping with each call that his quest had ended. But that seemed to be a tall order.
Much to his surprise and his chagrin, while there was a robust demand for dog-eared, coffee-stained novels, there was hardly any for used educational books.
“I’d even talked to Goodwill and it’d said ‘no.’” At one point I was ready to give up,” he said, apparently frustrated that his determined effort wasn’t yielding encouraging results.
In early 2007, just when he began to feel like a lone voice crying out in the wilderness, he stumbled upon a Web site that provided a glimmer of hope: of a San Francisco-based non-profit called Bridge to Asia, which ships educational tools to infrastructure-starved academic institutions in China.
From there, he was directed to a nondescript organization in Concord, California, Books for the Barrios, which dealt in overseas donation of books to needy schools in Mexico, Honduras, Philippines, and Bhutan. Were they interested in having Fox Lane High School’s stack of textbooks, asked Mr. Whalen?
Yes, they were more than happy to do so.
“To date, Books for the Barrios, has sent over 9 million books to the most remote areas or “barrios” of the Philippines,” says its Web site.
Elated, Mr. Whalen marshaled a small band of eager and energetic students, who were entrusted with the job of dusting the books, boxing them up, packing them, raising the money to ship them, and eventually, sending them off.
Kenny Esman, a ninth-grader, who’d taken the newly-created position of a book donation coordinator of the Youth in Action club, was to be the team leader.
Mr. Whalen learned from the United States Postal Service that the transport of printed cargo would be significantly cheaper than the delivery of other goods—at half the regular rate. Still, the funds had to be procured.
So far, we’ve collected roughly 1500 math, science, social studies, and English textbooks. We’ve collected just over $300 for shipping costs, said Mr. Whalen.
They’ve been put in 25 12 x 10 inch cardboard cartons, each weighing about 20 pounds. The first consignment left the school campus on February 1 and the second followed on March 15.
As Mr. Whalen and his elves presently busy themselves processing the remainder of the books, somewhere, a book-deprived kid is ready to embrace it as a much prized gift.