Literacy and Hope: What you can. Where you are. Every day.
Ours is a generation who strives for meaning in our lives. Oprah’s hugely successful “Soul Series” is indicative of this journey. (It’s probably not a coincidence that Half the Sky, Man’s Search for Meaning, Authentic Happiness, and The Purpose Driven Life are all strewn across my recently read/TBR shelves…) And as I talk with book clubs across the nation, I’m struck by how often many of them mention that giving back to their communities is one of their favorite group activities!
Today, I’d like to introduce you to one of those book club leaders. I happened to sit across from her the first night of Pulpwood Queens Girlfriends Weekend: Alyse Urice. Alyse is the Head Queen of The Pulpwood Queens of Golden, Colorado, and the KAT award winner for 2012. This worthy award goes to a Pulpwood Queen (or Timber Guy) who makes a real difference for literacy in her community. This is not the first year Alyse has received this meaningful award—she’s rather creative and has started several literacy and philanthropic projects over the years.
I’d like her to tell you about her many initiatives in her own words. (Otherwise, I’d probably just muck it up…) Here—you can eavesdrop on our email conversation below…
BCC: Alyse, how did you come to start a PWQ chapter in Golden? What were you looking for, and how did you accomplish it?
AU: If you saw Bill Torgeson‘s documentary, For the Love of Books, I mention growing up in a neighborhood with Frank, Hoagy, Boo Boo, Bruce, George & Bubby. I was the only girl. While that means that I have some pretty good insights into the workings of the male brain, it also means that I’m frequently awkward at making girlfriends and great at putting off things that I find intimidating. Cancer, however, is a great motivator. I was diagnosed very early with ovarian cancer and quick treatment saved my life. It was a real wake-up call, though. I used some of the time recovering to reassess how much time I spent living in and planning for the future and how I would live in the elusive land of Someday. I woke up one morning and wrote down the phrase, “This is the only ‘now’ we get.” That day I did an internet search about book clubs and quickly became frustrated. Finally I typed in something like “friendly, unstuffy book club” and there was a picture of Kathy Patrick and the Pulpwood Queens. I called her up, on the spot, and we chatted for nearly an hour! The next thing I knew, I was posting the group at Meetup.com and here we are, ready to celebrate our 3rd anniversary! They are wonderful, articulate, smart women who will not be shushed.
BCC: Alyse, can you tell us what project you started a few years ago in homeless shelters, buses and Laundromats in your community? What gave you the idea to do this?
AU: Several years back, when I was living in Pennsylvania, I attended a library book sale with my kids. It was a cold, rainy summer day and the sale was a fail. My daughter asked the librarian what would happen to all of the leftover books and was astonished to hear they would be sent to a pulp mill to be ground into notebooks. My kids pleaded with me to do something. I didn’t have a clue but asked the librarian for 2 hours. She thought I was nuts but agreed. I asked myself “who could use an instant library?” Six phone calls later I had made arrangements for the local county jail to send a truck to the library. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts loaded it up and the local TV news filmed the library’s good deed. The librarian talked to other librarians about replicating it. And you would think the rest is history but it’s not. I moved. I moved 1,500 miles and focused on raising my kids. I did get a 501(c)3 approved but beyond paperwork the idea gathered dust until that yummy cancer incident. I began gathering things up and shipping them to Goodwill. But when I got to my bookshelves, it was more personal than shirts and dishes. I thought about how many times reading had saved my sanity as a child and young adult and how hard it is when your choices are food or fuel, bus fare or a book. I cleared all but a handful of favorite reads, tied them in sets of 2 or 3, and scribbled a note for each set of books: Did you find these? They’re for you. It’s a sign from the Universe that things are looking up. My kids and I started leaving them on public transit, at bus stops, and it just got more creative as we went along.
BCC: How did you start a library in a nearby Native American reservation?
AU: When I ran out of my own books, I dusted off the 501(c)3 and put in a request to the Jefferson County Library for more books. The plan was to get about a dozen boxes of adult fiction. When we got there, we got our dozen boxes and a volunteer asked us to follow her to the youth area. It was the end of the sale and still nearly full. She asked if we had any use for the reference and reading books. I could hear the pulp mill grinding in my memories and thought of the cost of reference materials. Then I looked at my paramour, James, who was mouthing “no” at me and said, “Sure, we can use these.” In the end it was about 80 boxes of books. I checked locally and nobody wanted them. James, whose heritage is mostly Comanche, told me to contact the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I was reluctant but contacted the American Horse School. Like that first county jail library, they had a room with shelves and no books. I couldn’t wrap my head around that. A school library without books. An elder and his medicine singer made the trip to collect the books and we shared some good conversation. When more books became available, we delivered a second load of books with the kids at American Horse thanks to a loaner Penske truck. Now we are working with a Teach-for-America teacher who wants a school library for Crazy Horse School. We’re working toward funds for that trip.
BCC: Do you have any interesting stories about that library?
AU: We had some new books donated by Random House and they were the basis for the kids to start reading groups or mini book clubs. I also sent our World Book Night donated books, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie, along. I learned later that it started quite a stir. The kids were mesmerized by it but some parents didn’t like the imagery and wanted it pulled. The students said that if the books were taken, they would find a way to get more copies because it was “the best book we ever had.” The result was the kids keeping the book and discussions with elders and parents taking place about history and tradition and a lot of other pieces of Native life. Students arguing for the right to read books in a place where kids are more likely to commit suicide at 16 than graduate high school is pretty cool stuff.
BCC: What made you think about starting the “Homecoming Queen” book club?
AU: I was inspired by the story told at the Girlfriend Weekend about Mary Grove’s Pulpwood Queen group in a women’s prison in Alaska. Illiteracy is a prison of its own, and if I could take the joy and enthusiasm of the Golden Pulpwood Queens to other women, it would be worth the effort. I decided to contact a local program working with homeless women and families, STRIDE. They’re a tough program and have a great success rate. It was a slow start because the women were skeptical but in the near-year we have been doing this, I have watched them bond with one another and grow and draw so much more from fiction than the average reader. They have been reading Queen of Your Own Life at their own pace along with our monthly read (donated by some great authors). The idea took hold: not just getting off the street, not just surviving, but really doing something—being in charge of your own destiny. And so, the Homecoming Queens. By the way: I got a call from these formerly homeless women after our meeting last Friday. They are organizing a rummage sale to raise money to get books to Pine Ridge. Try wrapping your mind around that—working through homelessness and helping others. These women are such a gift.
BCC: What advice do you have for readers who would like to make a difference at home as well?
AU: I can’t stress enough how simple the project is and that it doesn’t take forming a project or a nonprofit to accomplish something. Maybe your passion isn’t literacy—maybe it’s rescue dogs or knitting or cooking. It’s as simple as asking yourself how to apply what you love as a gesture of goodwill in the path of another being on a consistent basis. What you can. Where you are. Every day. It’s that simple.
BCC: For folks who don’t want to re-invent the wheel, but who would like to support one of your initiatives, what can they do to help?
AU: I started 365 acts of sharing, ideas to practice what you can, where you are, every day and they are posted via Twitter and on my facebook page every day. You can follow our blog or donate via PayPal. All of the information is available at www.literacyandhope.com.
BCC: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us today—and thanks for the inspirational work you do in making a difference for literacy in your part of the world!
AU: Thank you for your generous spirit and letting me share!
And thanks to all of you readers. I hope Alyse and her Golden, Colorado Pulpwood Queens have inspired you to do something for literacy today. I know many of you already are—and would love to hear your stories—please write to me and tell me what you’re doing. All of these stories are so inspiring to others!
(Pictures Source: Kathy Patrick and Literacy and Hope)