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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.”

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