A good deed in a garbage world: Women launch book drive for migrant children in detention centers

"Of course we want to send books to our nation's smallest prisoners."

CREDIT: TOP: Getty Images BOTTOM: Kristin Stadum ART BY Adam Peck
CREDIT: TOP: Getty Images BOTTOM: Kristin Stadum ART BY Adam Peck

Under space blankets the crinkly silver of Hershey’s Kisses wrappers, elevated an inch off the concrete floor by the kind of foam mats that luckier kids might use for practicing cartwheels, their little feet in laceless shoes, children wait to be reunited with their parents.

The U.S. government reports that nearly 3,000 migrant children, about 100 of whom are under the age of five, were forcibly separated from their parents after crossing the southwest border, throwing themselves at the mercy of a country that, at this particularly callous point in its history, is in an unmerciful mood.

Advertisement

In the nation’s capital, Elizabeth Ballou, a 24-year-old whiling away a summer between a job at a tech start-up and graduate school in New York, watched the onslaught of news reports that flooded the airwaves in the wake of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions decree for prosecutors along the border to “adopt immediately a zero-tolerance policy” for illegal border crossings, even for parents with children and those asylum-seekers — requiring that all families be separated at the border.

About three weeks ago, as “the sheer magnitude of children separated from their parents at the border started to hit,” Ballou said. “I was trying to figure out a way in which I could actually make a difference. And donating books that meant a lot to me seemed like one of the most impactful things I could do.”

She looked around for an organization that was already sending books to these detention centers and “was pretty surprised” to find that there weren’t any. “I realized if I wanted to get books to the centers where these kids were being held, I knew I had to start something.”

Advertisement

Based on a map she saw in the Washington Post of known locations where children were being held, Ballou started calling centers across the country to find out if they accepted books or not. “Once I realized how many of them did, that’s when I realized I would have to find a non-profit partner.” So two weeks ago, she reached out to D.C. Books to Prisons. Though they aren’t the same, Ballou said, “there are a lot of similarities” between the prison system and the detention centers.

She connected with one of the organization’s founding board members, Kristin Stadum, who emailed her back .

Stadum emailed Ballou back within hours. “I was going to help either way, but I wanted to know what the official line was” from the five-person board, Stadum said by phone. “Unanimously, everyone said that they wanted to be involved in the project.” Within a day and a half, they’d put together a wishlist of books, Twitter and Facebook accounts, and got all the information up on the D.C. Books to Prisons website.

The project, named 2,000 Libros, launched on the Fourth of July.

A few books from the 2,000 Libros collection. CREDIT: Kristin Stadum
A few books from the 2,000 Libros collection. CREDIT: Kristin Stadum

They’re looking for “new and gently-used Spanish-language and bilingual books for early to mid level readers,” and have the support of several Washington-area bookstores: Politics and Prose, Kramerbooks and Afterwords, East City Bookshop, and One More Page Books. Anyone who wants to donate locally can do so at those stores, and for far-away philanthropists, the wishlist is up on Amazon.

Advertisement

“The core mission of D.C. Books to Prisons is to send books to prisoners, because they’re an underserved population, and prisons have even fewer resources than HHS. [So] we’re not abandoning that,” Stadum said. But, as another board member told her, teaming up with 2,000 Libros is an expansion of, not a deviation from, that mission. “Of course we want to send books to our nation’s smallest prisoners.”

During an early call to a detention center, Ballou recalled, “One of the things that I said was, can you confirm that you have minors separated from their parents at your organization? There was a moment of silence and the woman at the other end of the line finally said, ‘who are you calling for?’” Ballou tried to explain she wasn’t a reporter, but the woman was unmoved. “She said, ‘I don’t think we’re a good fit for this,’ and hung up.”

But “most of them were very supportive” of what would become 2,000 Libros, Ballou said. “One woman even squealed in delight [and said], ‘Yes, send us as many as you can possibly gather!’ I asked her how many books she waned, and she was like, ‘Oh, 1,000.’” (And that woman who hung up on Ballou eventually called her back.) “The majority of the people I’ve spoken to do want to fill out their libraries, which do not seem to include a lot of Spanish language books, or books that are right for kids.”

Ballou estimates she’s been in touch with about 30 to 35 places, about five of which “rejected me outright.” The largest beneficiary of 2,000 Libros, she said, will likely be Southwest Key, the contractor that runs the Casa Padre Center, which houses approximately 1,500 migrant children in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville, Texas.

Since she started this project, Ballou said, she’s realized “most of the people I talked to [working at detention centers] are completely against this policy of separating children from families. Many of the people who are in charge of donations care about one thing, and that is getting as many resources as they can to as many kids as possible…They’re people who are doing their absolute best to provide for these children in what is, objectively, a terrible situation.”

Still, with some of the chilling stories coming out about the state of children upon release from these centers — like that of a migrant child who was reportedly covered in lice when he was finally returned to his mother, who believed based on his condition he had not been bathed in weeks — Ballou “absolutely” has concerns about these books actually reaching their intended recipients.

Advertisement

“I don’t expect that in every case, the books are going to reach the kids and get to them immediately,” she said. “But what I do hope happens is that, because I have the contact information of so many of the people who are actually giving the books straight to the children, I’ll be able to call and check up on them and make sure that they’re actually getting there.” She’s still calling centers regularly, making sure her information about the population at each center is as up-to-date as possible.

As for the public reception, books are starting to stack up in Stadum’s 675-square-foot Capital Hill apartment. They’ve collected about 70 books so far; more packages are en route, including, Stadum said, “ten cartons of Highlights magazines.”

“I named this 2,000 Libros not thinking we would actually get 2,000 books, but maybe we will,” Ballou said. The next step is organizing the books and deciding what to send where, which they hope to do as soon as possible; they’ve targeted the end of July as “a regroup moment” where they can see “what have we managed to do, is it possible to continue, are people still interested in donating,” Ballou said.

Books donated to 2,000 Libros. CREDIT: Kristin Stadum
Books donated to 2,000 Libros. CREDIT: Kristin Stadum

It was probably inevitable that Ballou would receive some backlash, and since the launch of the project she has fielded a fair share of tweets like “This isn’t how we should respond to these criminals” and “Why aren’t you donating to American kids?”

“I didn’t reply,” she said, but “mentally, I was like, what are you talking about? These are children! A lot of them probably did not choose to cross the border. So whether you believe it is a great crime to cross the border illegally or not, have mercy on these minors who did not make this decision for themselves.”

Children in these detention centers have a battery of needs, all of which feel pressing. Asked why she immediately gravitated toward books — as opposed to, for instance, clothing, food, even money — Ballou began, “This is going to sound kind of silly, but in college I was part of a Harry Potter book club.”

The group was “tongue-in-cheek,” she said, (they called themselves “The Order”), but they volunteered with local Boys and Girls Clubs, reading books like The Phantom Tollbooth and other young adult classics to the children there. And they would talk about “how important the Harry Potter books had been to us when we were children, in transporting us to another world that existed no matter what was going on in our own lives.”

“I think there’s really something incredible about the power that a book has to transport a child or a teenager into a reality that may be far more exciting and desirable than the one that they’re currently in,” Ballou said.

“So if it were up to me, I would free all of these children immediately, and I know Kristin feels the same way. But we don’t have the legal training to necessarily go to court to fight for them. We don’t have the money to make a $100,000 donation to the ACLU or something like that. But we both know books. We understand the power of books.”

“We can’t free their bodies,” Stadum said. “But we can help them escape a little bit through the written word.”