Today I saw something one doesn’t get to see so very often. I got to see what difference a book makes to someone who doesn’t get them regularly. And not even in a Headstart-donation kind of way.

Today’s story begins a few days ago, when a friend texted me and asked if I wanted to check out a new volunteering opportunity. We volunteer together a lot and she always brings great places to the table, so I said yes. She told me it was for an organization called Books to Prisoners, where you read letters from people currently incarcerated about what kinds of books they want to read, pick a few likely candidates, and write something friendly back before wrapping the package up and sending it away.

I went through several phases of expecting different things before I actually went to volunteer, but it was better than I’d imagined. It’s a very independent cause run out of a garage stuffed to the gills with books on tons of subjects. There are three tables in the middle, stuffed with pens and rubber bands and packages sitting in some stage of packing, and about five chairs total. It’s great.

So I sat and listened to a Bjork mixtape and read letters from people who have little contact with other humans and almost no contact with the outside world, and all they wanted were books and maybe someone to write to. I had one person write out a poem and say something like ‘I write because someone has to, but more than that, to show the world that I still love life’ and then ask for a dictionary and a western novel. I had someone write and ask for an Italian-English dictionary so they could write to a pen pal from Italy. I had someone ask for a Spanish-English dictionary so they could write to their significant other in significant other’s native language. So many people asked for dictionaries or thesauri, sometimes in very broken English. People asked for history books or comic books, sudoku puzzles or fantasy. Everyone just wanted something to read.

It meant so much to people to have someone ‘on the outside’ picking books for them and writing a short letter. Probably fifty percent mentioned how glad they were to have contact with the outside world. Many people thanked the organization profusely because it was the only place they could convince to send them books. One person even said it was the only way they could get care packages.

The books we sent weren’t crazy new or crazy fancy. They were the kinds of books you find deep in the back of used book stores, and some of them will probably never see the light of day again. But there were books for every prisoner, and books they’d asked for, not just a guess. And every inmate got a handwritten reply.

I hope those people with so little will get as much solace out of books as I have. Everyone deserves the chance to read.

Keep reading, and keep out of trouble,

(By the way, because Books To Prisoners is so little they don’t have much money and are frequently unable to send the books volunteers have packaged until months later because of lack of funds, so if you feel inclined to help pay for the shipping costs (which are entirely paid for by the organization), their website (and donation info) is here. Thanks.)