Under the cover of twilight on the edge of a damp and chilly evening in February, a group of people snuck onto the sidewalk of an unassuming YMCA carrying tools of all shapes. What was their nefarious purpose? Were they vandals? Woodworking Illuminati? The ghosts of community service past, present, and future? While some are still holding on to the Illuminati theory, it has been confirmed that these people were generous Sigma Tau Delta members working on a service project that will brighten up the community and help young readers.
On February 23, 2018, Western Illinois University Sigma Tau Delta members braved the less than ideal weather to begin restoring the Little Free Library: a small library box outside the Macomb YMCA containing children’s books that can be taken and returned by anyone at no charge. The Little Free Library was first put in place by Western’s National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) chapter several years ago, and—although it still stands—it was clear the structure has seen better days. Weather worn sides, a cracked foundation, and a sagging hinge meant the box could use some love and the English Honor organization answered the call.
The money for this project came in the form of a $350.00 Chapter Project Grant from Sigma Tau Delta: a competitive award meant to encourage chapters to be active in their communities and advance the group’s goals of encouraging the study of English and fostering literacy. This grant went toward buying sandpaper, sealant, and other practical supplies for the restoration of the Little Free Library, as well as books to restock the mostly empty shelves. Remaining funds will be used to continue to expand the book collection based upon community requests and wear and tear on existing books. In the past, the Little Free Library has contained mostly board books for young children; however, since the Macomb area is a poorer community and children of all ages could use the resource, Sigma Tau Delta has provided everything from small picture books to Young Adult novels and classic storybooks. Inside each book a short letter was hidden to be found by the children. The letters will encourage the child to continue reading and allow books to become a positive influence in their life.
After venting pent up frustration through aggressive sanding and scraping, the students sealed the structure with a waterproof coating and filled in the cracked foundation to prevent further weather damage. The project was left to cure, and Sunday the fun work of painting and stocking the new and improved Little Free Library began. Distance learners and members from the Quad Cities campus joined Macomb members in sprucing up the now plain wood box, coming together to help one community. During the restoration process, Cynthia Cavett, the YMCA staff member who worked with the organization to make this event happen, came out to check on our progress. She was thrilled that the Little free Library was getting a touch up since it is such an important part of the community. Molly Cameron, the Chapter President, said “It’s so important for organizations to get off campus and make a difference in their community, especially when the organization values literacy, and education. I am incredibly proud of everyone who has come together to make this project a success, and I am happy to be able to give back to people who support us.” With a fresh coat of cheerfully bright paint, the little free library was once again covered in quotes and characters from Dr. Seuss, which invite children to go and read. After the project, this staple of the Macomb community looks like new and has a selection of books for everyone to enjoy. We may not be a mysterious band of vagabonds sneaking in to do community service under cover of darkness, but we are a fantastic group of people working to improve our community, reach out to students, and provide a home for those with a love of literature.
I highly encourage other chapters to do similar projects in their own communities. There can never be too many books in circulation, and it is important that all children have access to literary resources regardless of their circumstances. The project is fun and creative, and it’s a great way to get a group of English majors out of a stuffy classroom and encourage them to be more involved. From a logistical standpoint, a Little Free Library is relatively straightforward, though if you are buying books it would be best to convince your group to choose their books before developing a budget so you can get an accurate budget estimate. Prices vary widely by genre, age group, and edition so it is difficult to get a number based on the general quantity rather than the prices of specific titles.