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Sunday, December 14, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Generosity that speaks volumes: Book drive for troops nears 10,000

By Tan Vinh
Seattle Times staff reporter

JOHN LOK / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Allison Larson, far left, in hat; Talia Alcantar, center; and Rinda Picard bag books Friday in Edmonds as part of a book drive for military personnel deployed overseas. Other Seattle University MBA students helped Alcantar, Picard and Rick Halstead with the project.
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It started with a class assignment, an e-mail and a plan to provide some reading material to troops overseas.

But in the three weeks since three Seattle University students began collecting books to fulfill a class requirement, the project has caught on among area schools and workplaces in King, Snohomish and Kitsap counties.

The students estimate they have close to 10,000 books to pass on to area military bases.

The project "has taken on a life of its own," said Rinda Picard, a student leading the project.

The book drive has inspired hundreds of elementary- and middle-school students to take part, motivated one woman to collect 700 books and brought one ex-Navy officer to tears.

In late November, Picard and classmates Talia Alcantar and Rick Halstead began the book drive to fulfill the 10-hour community-service requirement for a leadership course in their MBA program.

Picard e-mailed 25 classmates asking for help putting out bins and boxes around the campus and at Boeing facilities.

With the first e-mail, "I thought, 'Oh boy, I don't know if this would amount to anything,' " said Bill Weis, director of the MBA program. "Within 24 hours, I realized there was a huge energy behind it."

About 2,000 books poured in during the first week. More boxes and drop-off points were added and teachers, PTA members and civic groups called to learn more.

The 10-hour community project became a 100-hour job, Weis said. Students scrambled to locate storage space and recruit other students to pick up the books.

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The drive has touched many in ways the students had not expected.

In Kitsap County, where thousands of students come from Navy families, school officials estimate that nearly 2,000 books have been collected, mostly from students at Cougar Valley Elementary and Central Kitsap Junior High in Silverdale, and Silverwood School and The Farm, a preschool and kindergarten in Poulsbo.

"It gets your mind off the separation from the family," said Brittany Larson, 13, a student at Central Kitsap Junior High.

Larson said she got involved in the project because her father, deployed in an undisclosed location, reads books to pass the time.

Nicolette Roberge, a librarian at Archbishop Thomas Murphy High in Everett, donated 700 books — from the school's surplus, from her own collection and from friends.

"I had a cousin once who was on a submarine for six months. He always loaded up on the paperbacks, so I know how valuable this can be," said the Arlington resident, who learned about the book drive from a flier.

Retired Lt. Cmdr. Bill Hughes choked up when he heard about the drive, recalling how much donated books helped him through lonely nights as a young sailor in Vietnam three decades ago. It's the little details — such as a scene from a roadside cafe or a prairie — that allow the reader to drift back home, if only for a few hours, he said.

"It's really hard to explain the amount of impact," Hughes said. "It offers an escape to the sailors out there."

The Seattle University students end their project today, after sending the books to the Navy League of Bremerton-Olympic Peninsula, which will send them on to all the carriers and submarines.

The number of books collected is a record for the Navy League, said spokeswoman Sandra Howes, whose group typically gets 200 to 300 books donated a month.

Even in the age of the Internet and video games, the books are still popular with military personnel on extended deployments, Howes said. Bibles, Tom Clancy novels and romance paperbacks tend to be among the most popular donations.

Although the drive was initially intended for sailors, the students collected so many books that volumes will also be sent to the Fort Lewis Army and McChord Air Force bases.

The stack of books is "about the size of a Buick," said Picard, who started it all. If there was a lesson in this project, Picard said, it's about the power of words.

Tan Vinh: 206-515-5656 or tvinh@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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