In her affluent Chicago suburb, Sandy Welch's children attend excellent schools. They have access to more books than they can read, and the majority of students in their district read at or above grade level. The high school graduation rate is a stunning 97 percent.
In an urban neighborhood just 20 miles away, three out of four children read below their grade level—if at all. Most have little access to libraries or books.
These two worlds came together in 2001 when Sandy's husband, Greg, joined Springboard, an organization that provides seed money for after-school programs. A year later, Springboard made a donation to Breakthrough Urban Ministries, located in Chicago's gritty East Garfield Park neighborhood, which provides a variety of services, including after-school sports and tutoring.
Over the next five years, Sandy and Greg got to know some of the Break-through staff. Impressed with the work they were doing, Sandy invited director Bill Curry to speak at a luncheon for her women's Bible study in December 2007.
While Bill's stories of how Break-through helps underprivileged kids were compelling, the fact that he and his family actually live in East Garfield Park really spoke to Sandy. "So many of us want to do good things," she says. "But to take that leap of faith, to move into the neighborhood—gave him a ton of credibility. You could see his love for those kids and his passion for helping them."
Inspired by Bill's sharing, Sandy's group visited Breakthrough's facilities a month later. The neighborhood, once one of the most violent in Chicago, is run down but slowly improving. New buildings sit next to crumbling, abandoned, or boarded up ones. "I was a little worried," Sandy admits. "It was out of my comfort zone."
Specific Needs, Specific Answers
Sandy and her women's group learned Breakthrough's ministry was moving some offices from one building to another, which opened space for a library. But Breakthrough desperately needed books, especially for children.
Though some might consider a library frivolous in the face of more basic needs such as food and clothing, Sandy disagrees. "Books can provide an escape from the things going on in kids' lives," she says. "Yet a lot of kids can't afford a book or safely get to a library. As a mom, the idea that these kids didn't have access to something my children take for granted moved me. We wanted a place where other moms could sit and read with their kids, where they could relax."
As Sandy and the others began to brainstorm, they realized they'd also need library shelving, new carpeting, tables, chairs, and computers. The walls needed a fresh coat of paint. And, of course, they needed books. "We jumped all over it," she says with a grin.
Still, the project experienced some setbacks. The woman Sandy put in charge had to drop out when her husband faced severe health problems. The library stalled, and Sandy worried.
"We wondered if we should go ahead and order shelving," she recalls. "What if we couldn't raise the money to pay for it?" She frequently questioned if she was doing the right thing. Fortunately, in those times of doubt, God showed up.
"God did some cool things," Sandy says. "Literally 10 minutes before we were going to order the carpet, someone called Bill and said they wanted to donate carpeting—the same kind we were getting ready to buy." That saved the group $550—and bolstered Sandy's faith. "I felt God was blessing the project, and things began to fall into place," she says.
Determined to raise money, Sandy and some friends planned a fundraising party in January 2009, just weeks before the library was to open. As they made preparations, God surprised Sandy once again: A local restaurant donated appetizers and another source donated beverages, making the party nearly cost-free.
Sandy had hoped to raise $5,000. She was thrilled when attendees generously donated double that amount. "It reinforced that God was behind this, that he was going to provide," she says.
The Power of a Book
The Breakthrough staff provided a list of books that would be especially relevant to urban children, and Sandy's group was able to purchase two copies of each. In addition, the grade school Sandy's kids attended gave them a booth at its book fair, where they asked people to underwrite the cost of the books.
"I think this gave our group something we could wrap our arms around, do more than just write a check," Sandy says. "This helped us to get outside ourselves, to do an outreach to others, to walk the walk."
As word of the project spread, used books and donations poured in. The library opened in January 2009, and Sandy continues to get calls from people who want to donate books.
"One day I took my daughter to deliver some used books," she says. "A woman walking into the shelter saw a book in the box and told us how much she loves mysteries. As we gave her the book, it was wonderful to see her get so excited about something we take for granted."
Those experiences interacting with people from such a different world—culturally and economically—have challenged Sandy. "I say I'm thankful for my blessings, when a lot of them are material," she admits. "I can't imagine what it's like for those who live in poverty. My hope is that this library can bless their lives in some small way."
Keri Wyatt Kent is a TCW regular contributor and author of numerous books, including Rest: Living in Sabbath Simplicity (Zondervan).
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Today's Christian Woman.