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High Schoolers Share the Wealth of Words

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Published June 13, 2006 at 7:17 p.m.

VERGENNES -- There are many ways to commemorate United Nations International Peace Day, which falls each year on September 21. Some people hold vigils, plant trees or plan concerts; in 2005, 1350 schools and organizations around the world held a Pinwheels for Peace event, involving half a million pinwheels that encouraged onlookers to "visualize whirled peace."

Last year, Peace Day also inspired a group of students at Vergennes Union High School to take more tangible action. In honor of the event, the 12 students in Megan Kapsch's British Literature class launched a book drive. They dubbed their effort "Books Without Borders."

Over this entire school year, the kids, their teacher and a handful of other volunteers solicited and sorted hundreds of thousands of books, which they stored in a barn in Panton. They were able to donate more than 200 boxes of them to literacy programs, libraries, emergency shelters, a Children's Hospital and schools in Vermont, New Hampshire, New Orleans and three countries.

As the school year draws to a close, Kapsch calls the project a success. "When the students do something like that together," she says, "it's pretty powerful."

The 26-year-old Burlington resident is in her third year of teaching at Vergennes. She admits to being idealistic, and is determined to make an impact on her students' lives.

In her first year at the school, Kapsch helped students collect a couple thousand dollars for a local woman whose husband was sick by amassing "a mile of pennies."

She and her students say the book drive idea belonged to the class. But Kapsch may have nudged the kids in a service-oriented direction; in addition to the classics, Kapsch had also assigned Savage Inequalities, Jonathan Kozol's treatise on the disparities in American education. "It has nothing to do with British Literature," she concedes, "but it was a nice break from Beowulf."

When the class convened after the school's Peace Day rally, the students hatched their plan and made flyers to announce it to the rest of the school. They devoted their 80-minute class to the project each Friday during the fall semester.

When the books they collected began to outgrow the classroom and the drop-off point in the school lobby, Junior Gena Hubbard volunteered to house them in her family's barn. The kids loaded them onto trucks and brought them over. "We're all really ripped now from carrying them," Hubbard quips.

The 16-year-old says she was surprised by how many titles they collected. "We were flooded with books," she says. Kapsch notes that many of them, such as sets of encyclopedias from 1975 and collections of Reader's Digest condensed stories, ended up at the dump. She estimates they got four boxes of junk books for every box that was usable.

Sifting through this mountain of material proved interesting. "You could see the fads," Kapsch says. "Stacks of diet books, the whole Better Crocker era, this whole self-help spiritual revolution, with the very handsome doctor on the cover telling you how to move through the paths of your life. A lot of those. And a lot of war stories."

Kapsch reports the group also, inexplicably, collected "a lot of smut." They ended up donating some of the romance novels to a girls' shelter in New Hampshire. "I nabbed a few of them for my mom," Hubbard adds cheekily.

When the class originally envisioned the project, they thought they'd be shipping books to faraway places. The kids and some volunteers even fundraised by working a daylong shift at the Vermont Teddy Bear Factory during the holiday season.

But Kapsch soon redirected her aim. "As the project developed, I realized that there are people all around here who need books," she says. "Why am I trying to ship these across the country?"

Some ended up going to local charities such as COTS, and to the Fletcher Allen Children's Hospital. The class did ship some volumes to New Orleans, and an art gallery in White River Junction paid to send some of them to a school in Sikkim, India.

Kapsch admits there were times when her idealism waned. Thinking about donating books to kids who might not be able to read made the drive seem inadequate. She says it helped to watch her students sorting children's' books on weekends in the frigid barn. They'd find some they'd read in childhood and reminisce about familiar characters. It reminded her that "this does matter."

Senior Kristen Bissonette was moved by the experience. "When I go to school in the fall," she says, "I'm planning on making sure people celebrate Peace Day."