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A Book to Some, but an Escape for Homeless Children

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If you were a volunteer and really trying to reach kids having a tough time of it in life--I mean, really trying to reach them at a fundamental level--how would you do it? How would you try to add pleasure and perspective to their lives?

Maybe you’d be tempted to buy them things. Maybe you’d want to take them places. You’d be thinking about missed opportunities that you wanted them to have.

How about something as simple as a book?

Think of the places that books took you as a kid. Think of the possibilities that spilled out in front of you as you read about people and places and adventures. Remember how much bigger and more exciting the world became? For a lot of people, the course of their lives was directed by things they read as children.

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Now imagine being a kid and being unable to check out a library book because you don’t have a permanent address. Imagine not having the money to buy one. Can you see your world shrinking?

When you’re homeless, that’s life.

Because the problems of the homeless usually center on the necessities of just getting groceries and a roof over their heads, things like books get lost in the shuffle.

But because volunteers like Mary Huth and Suzanne Robbins have both good hearts and thinking caps, the kids at Orange Coast Interfaith Shelter in Costa Mesa aren’t going to be shut off from books.

Huth has been doing volunteer work for about a year. Robbins joined in several months ago after getting to know Huth and learning about the monthly field trips she organized for the shelter kids. “The reality these kids are facing is so incredibly harsh,” Huth says. “Can you imagine not having a house to invite friends to?”

About a month ago, Robbins was trying to think of a new project when she hit upon the book idea. A lifelong reader, she was struck by the crying need for it at the shelter.

She began talking up the idea with friends and clients (both she and Huth sell magazine advertising space). So far, they have more than 400 books that in the weeks ahead will be given to the shelter. If there’s an overload, the books will find homes in other social service outlets.

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I could get sappy about the contribution I think these books will make to these kids. But if you don’t already have an innate sense yourself of the power that language and ideas can have on children, then you probably wouldn’t bother reading on, anyway. And if you do have that sense, I don’t need to take any more of your time.

Suffice it to say that Huth and Robbins should sleep well at night.

“It’s not like by one trip we’re going to change the course of their life,” Huth says, “but we’re all a product of our collective experiences. I want this to be on the plus side for them. When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of money, but one thing my mother always drummed into me is that if you have golden memories, a person with great memories is a wealthy person. It’s indestructible and not something that can be taken away.”

For Robbins, the time at Interfaith restored her faith in volunteer work. “I have done a lot of work with (charity) organizations, but I never felt I was getting that one-on-one experience,” she said. “I was disillusioned with Orange County because I felt they were more like networking things, handing out business cards and writing checks. All these mixers. It seemed the only way to get involved was to go to a mixer, pay $20, get a free drink and hors d’oeuvres and hobnob with the Orange County yuppie group. I didn’t see a lot more than that going on. It seemed party-oriented, network-oriented and people looking to find dates.”

I don’t have the space here to relate some of their stories about the kids’ response to their various day trips, such as to the zoo or amusement park or the movies. But it doesn’t take much imagination to picture how a 6-year-old who lives in a homeless shelter might feel after being taken to “Beauty and the Beast.”

Trust me, neither Huth nor Robbins is looking for the ink. They’ve been doing their volunteer work anonymously for many months; only the need for books prompted them to give me a call about the latest idea.

But I have no problem giving them all the free pub they want.

“I’ve got a great job, I came from a great family, I was well educated, I have everything going for me, and if I’m not actively participating in my own community with people who aren’t as fortunate as me, then who should be doing it?” Robbins said. “I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t feel I was giving something back, because I am very fortunate. I hope I can make a difference somewhere along the way, but it won’t be from writing checks. It will be from that one-on-one contact.”

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If you have a new or used book to donate, feel free to drop it off at Huth’s office at Video Store Magazine, 1700 E. Dyer Road, Suite 250, in Santa Ana.

You may never hear about it, but rest assured that some child will pick it up and read it and perhaps be inspired or challenged or amused.

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