Youth demonstrates generosity by the books

Baltimore eighth-grader organizes drive to replace collection ruined by storm

December 16, 2003|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Ben Myers, 14, is giving a Christmas present this year that speaks volumes about him.

Nine hundred volumes, to be exact. That's the number of children's books that Ben, a pupil at the School of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, rounded up to donate to a family health clinic and day care center in East Baltimore that was hit hard by Tropical Storm Isabel.

It started in September, after Isabel struck the Lillian D. Wald Community Nursing Center at 1600 Rutland Ave. with such force that the basement was flooded with 4 feet of water, ruining the collection of children's books downstairs.

Ben's mother, Ann Myers -- who works for the Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing, which has ties to the clinic -- told her family the story of the lost books. The medical clinic serves about 1,000 Baltimore children every year, officials said, giving lead screenings, vaccinations and physical exams, among other treatments.

"She told me how the clinic had lost a bunch of books during the flood," said Ben, an eighth-grader clad in the khakis-and-tie uniform of his Catholic school.

That's when he came up with the idea to spread the word about the center's loss and ask his fellow pupils to donate new books. His plan was to do it the old-fashioned, elbow-grease way: by making fliers, posting notices on bulletin boards and putting out cardboard donation boxes in the school and the church lobby.

Ben also wrote a letter to the Cathedral School's assistant principal, Tara Noonan, outlining his hope to replace the books in the clinic's lost library.

An outpouring followed, exceeding Ben's expectations. "I was thinking about 500 books," he said.

Instead, the count came in at 900 books, many of them new hardcovers, including all the Harry Potter volumes. The financial contributions came to $420, which was also donated to the community clinic.

Soon it became clear the job could not be done alone, so Ben asked his friend and classmate Maggie Murphy, 14, and his younger brother, Patrick, to pitch in.

Maggie, he said, was the secretary of the effort.

Sixth-grader Patrick Myers, 12, said, "I had the behind-the-scenes job."

Translated, that meant loading and reloading the family car with boxes of books. Ann Myers was the family's designated driver from their Mayfield home in Northeast Baltimore to the clinic.

There was no extra school credit for the project. There was nothing in it for Ben, Patrick and Maggie but the feeling of doing a good deed, and seeing the happy faces of the children from the day care center yesterday when they each were given a book for Christmas.

The clinic director, Marion D'Lugoff, expressed delight yesterday that the books were hand-delivered to the clinic's door. In her 10 years at the clinic -- which mostly serves families with no health insurance -- she had never seen anything like it before.

"I've never had anybody do this, something of this magnitude," D'Lugoff said. "Sometimes you get dispirited -- with the war, the economy, unemployment -- but here are these beams of light. I'm very touched by this.

"I think those kids will remember they did a good thing and it will help them be better citizens," she added.

Noonan, the Cathedral School assistant principal, said the initiative was what impressed her.

"The fact Ben came up with the idea and planned it himself was phenomenal," she said. "At Cathedral, we do try to push the idea that you are part of a much bigger world, and he took that even farther."

It turned out the 900 books will go farther than he imagined. Unbeknownst to Ben, Patrick and Maggie, a shelter for about 25 homeless families in transition is also housed in the facility, a former public school building.

Some of the books will be gift-wrapped to give to each family, D'Lugoff said, with plenty remaining for a new collection of children's books for the clinic.

June Matthews, director of the Walter F. Perkins Day Care Center, said yesterday's gift ceremony was important in itself. "They treasure a book more if someone gave it to them," she said.

Before the gift-giving, Ben, Maggie and Patrick joined the young children in a prayer giving thanks.

For Ben, whose extracurricular time is usually spent singing in the Maryland State Boys Choir, his travel across town was an eye-opening experience.

"I got to see how other people lived," Ben said. "Yes, I think it was worth it."

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