Weathering the economic storm
by Scott De Laruelle Photos submitted


ane County is well-known for its progressive history and friendly people. It’s probably no surprise, then, that area service organizations – from Optimist and Rotary clubs to Scouting groups – play a large role in keeping communities strong and active and helping those in need. Though the economy finally seems to be on an upswing after several rough years, the recent downturn has caused some changes in how Dane County service organizations operate. Many people

“Monona no longer has a Jaycee (United States Junior Chamber) Club, the Monona Lions Club merged with Cottage Grove, and the Monona Optimist Club has closed down,” she said. Stoughton Chamber of Commerce executive director Erica Dial said while there hasn’t been a “huge change” in membership in area service organizations, many are actively seeking out new members and having to “adjust their activity level” based on reduced membership. “For many organizations or clubs, peo-

All the same, he said whether it’s helping the youth or the elderly, joining a service organization can be very rewarding. “Listening to an exchange student you’ve helped fund their trip overseas is fun,” he said. “Those experiences make you pretty good, and it’s a great way to meet people and network.”

“For many organizations or clubs, people have less time to commit to them, and the people in the younger generation are not joining like maybe their parents did.”
— Erica Dial
have had to pick up extra jobs, or work extra hours to make ends meet, while others have had to cut back on outside activities to focus on their families. For some groups, the recession has cut into membership and activities – even causing some chapters and groups to close, while for others, it has seemingly spurred people on to try to do more for their neighbors and their communities. Terri Groves of the Monona Chamber of Commerce said a probable combination of factors, including the economy and also a trend among younger people not being as involved in service organizations as previous generations, has hit some Monona service organizations hard.

ple have less time to commit to them, and the people in the younger generation are not joining like maybe their parents did,” she said. “Some do better than others.” Middleton Chamber of Commerce past president Randy Krantz said most of the service organizations in the area are having “challenges getting membership where they want it,” citing increasingly busy schedules as a main culprit. “Devoting time to a weekly or monthly meeting is something that people really contemplate that hard before making that decision (to join),” he said. “They are all excellent organizations, but people have a difficult time making that time commitment.”

Not all the news is bad, though. In fact, Renee Moe, president of Downtown Madison Rotary and vice-president of United Way of Dane County, said while the economy has caused some changes, Madison has seen some definite positives. “The downturn has increased the awareness of services, and for the community to be more helpful,” she said. “People are looking for ways to give back, though maybe not so much of their time.” Moe said membership in many Madison service organizations has been “robust” in recent years, with a new Rotary Club chapter starting in the city, and a new generation emerging and starting to get involved. “If you look at participation and engagement, there’s a lot of enthusiasm among young professionals to get more engaged in service clubs,” she said. “Some groups are aging as the older members are passing on or people are moving away, but there are new groups coming in. People always want to connect and give back; people are looking for that connection – a relationship where they’re doing something bigger than themselves, and service organizations are a practical way to do that.” For people looking to teach values to

Positive outlook


Little Free Libraries
A ‘little’ idea that spread worldwide
With Rick Brooks he idea behind Little Free Libraries is simple: “Take a book, leave a book.” But that simple idea has translated to thousands of boxes in communities around Dane County and the world filled with books, offering a chance for neighbors to share their literary favorites. Today, the boxes are often artfully designed and almost always highly valued by the neighborhood community. Your Family magazine spoke with cofounder Rick Brooks, who is based in Madison, recently to talk about how the idea came about, and what he thinks of its success. YF: How did Little Free Libraries come about? RB: It’s a pretty straightforward story. I was teaching a workshop in Hudson that I teach around the state. It was on green practices for small businesses. (Co-founder Todd Bol) was an attendee and had started a project for his mother. She was a teacher, and he built a “oneroom schoolhouse” with a Plexiglas door on it and filled it with books and said “free books” on it and put it on a post in his front yard. He kind of got the idea from several different sources. It wasn’t called the little free library, it was the concept of sharing books. He and I started talking and we figured out a lot of things that could do that would have positive benefit in a neighborhood or a community and it could carry a lot of freight, in addition to just books. Eventually we got to the whole mission of supporting sense of community, reading for children, literacy for adults and libraries around the world. He built the first one in 2009, we really got going in 2010 and had about 100 at the end of that year … we’re up to about 15,000 now in 59 countries. YF: Did you expect the idea to spread and grow as wide as it has? RB: We hoped it would and we worked very hard that it would. What’s interest24 YOUR FAMILY SPRING 2014


Take a book, leave a book.

by Scott Girard

Madison’s Rick Brooks, left, and Hudson’s Todd Bol founded Little Free Libraries in 2009.

ing is that we really don’t seek publicity. We don’t aggressively even sell the libraries that we make, we try to respond to demand, which is wonderful. We want to be spread through word of mouth through people who are involved and feel very positive about it. There’s very few downsides to it. Even the very rare examples of vandalism or a couple have been stolen, but it was so upsetting to communities when they were stolen they put it on the news, went on the TV at night and, in three cases, they found it. There was one in Madison that was stolen from a church on the east side, beautifully built with stained glass and it was in the news, a lot of people were very upset. Eventually they found it in a vacant lot I think and it had a pair of baby shoes and had a children’s book in it and was wrapped to protect it from the weather, they said. Every single day we get 20 to 30 of

those kinds of stories. YF: What do you think has made it so successful? RB: A lot of things. The primary thing, we believe after lots of people telling us so, is there is a yearning for a sense of community. Despite infrastructure and highways and the way that we design cities and businesses and the way we travel now, people don’t really know their neighbors the way they used to. There is a strong desire to get to know your neighbors and what matters to them, and contribute something positive. I don’t think the giving aspect is that you get rid of a bunch of junk books around your house, it’s that you share your favorite books with people who can enjoy them as much as you did. So that spirit really is there. We have a program called the “Give it Forward” team, and the idea is that you can contribute to help somebody who doesn’t have a library or public library, or

doesn’t have the funding in their neighborhood to have even a little library, you can help them have it. Often, when they get the money that they need, they give it to somebody else. YF: How is the organization involved on a day-to-day basis? RB: We have five people, in Hudson and Madison. Two of us are here in Madison. Mostly we answer mail and phone calls because we have so many people who want to have libraries or tell us about what they’re doing. We have about 48,000 people on our Facebook page. We get sometimes 8,00010,000 visits a day on our website … It’s amazing. What we do is we spend most of our time helping people either build or find someone to help them build the library. We do build them ourselves and we have an Amish carpenter and craftsman who do it. We spend most of our time encouraging and thanking people for getting involved and providing the kind of support they need and answer their questions. We started out, mostly one family, usually it was a mom or a very active woman who often would get her husband or somebody to build it with her. But now it’s whole neighborhoods and library associations and schools and city governments and parks systems and rotary clubs. It’s happening because apparently there are many different kinds of people who are interested for their own reasons. Some of them are literacy reasons and some are help kids be prepared for schools and so we encourage reading to young children. Other times, it’s just a nice thing to do if they want to feel good about something. YF: What are some of the better stories you’ve heard? RB: We know that it’s brought a lot of disparate, different groups together to get to know each other. We know that there are senior centers and older adults who are often alone and vulnerable, because their health is deteriorating or they’re just lonely, and having a Little Free Library where they can either walk to it or share books with somebody had made a big difference in their lives. We know that people have started new programs around little libraries. One of the early libraries in Madison was built by a mentor and a young man with a disability, who he would spend time with every week in their basement doing carpentry. They built a Little Free Library, and as they built it and finally installed it in Daniel’s home, he began talking more, socializing more and getting to know more people.

There was so much success with the little library and people stopping, they built a second one for children. That’s the beauty of it. We could probably tell you hundreds and hundreds of stories about what people like about them and what a difference it’s made in their lives.


I have a Bible from 1812 that I put in. A girl scout manual in our office here from 1920. Twenty volumes of Victor Hugo from 1890s. So people are not afraid to put very valuable, beloved books in the libraries. They leave notes and they leave bookmarks. YF: What is it that keeps communities from having vandalism or theft? RB: You establish the expectation that it belongs to everybody, especially kids. You have lots of people who leave notes in their books and let it be known that this is something that’s almost sacred to them, that they really like it and you wouldn’t want to damage it. There’s so little vandalism. It’s really not a major issue. It happens occasionally, but thousands of mailboxes get beat up with baseball bats. At little library, we have a little more spiritual, almost sacred spot in peoples’ minds.

YF: How does it feel to hear that kind of feedback? RB: It’s great. The other thing that excites me though is that we just had a student group, two groups in the same week. One went to Kenya and took a little library in their baggage and within three days it was built in a program for street children in Nairobi. The other group went to Nepal and took one to a program that, I used to be chair of a board of a program that works in Nepal and Sri Lanka, but now they’re running “Teach for Nepal” and little libraries are being built in very remote villages in Nepal and inspiring not only kids to read, but inspiring them to get bigger libraries. There are just wonderful stories like that all around the world. YF: What kinds of books do you see being put in and taken out of the Little Free Libraries most often? RB: It’s very diverse. It’s important to establish a norm from the very beginning of high quality books. In the vast majority of cases, when the Little Free Library is built and installed they have a little welcoming party. They ask everybody to participate. They communicate the message that it belongs to everybody. You tell people to take a look at the books that are in the library now, and ask them if they have some favorite books to share. The remarkable thing is most of the time that’s what they do. You’d think that “well, people are going to steal the books,” but you can’t steal a free book. Then you think “they’re going to just put in crummy paperbacks like murder mysteries,” and there are some, that’s fine. But there’s also really fantastic books. We had a woman give us 2,000 books; three hundred of them were published before 1900. I’ve put some books that were 120 years old in Little Free Libraries.

A recent addition to the Little Free Libraries in front of Associated Dentists in Verona.

YF: Any book recommendations? RB: The Book Thief. Twentieth Century Fox came to us and said how can we help, we’d like to promote the film “The Book Thief.” And they donated 400 copies of the book and they also built two really beautiful little libraries and gave them to Dave Eggers’ writing programs in New York City and Los Angeles. I saw the film, and I’ll tell you, it’s a fantastic film, and the book is even better. But the books I can recommend are the books that anybody would recommend. I gave a book that my mother gave to me in 1958. It was “Cry, the Beloved Country” by Alal Paton. It was about apartheid in South Africa. I bet you have favorite books from when you were a kid, or high school or college. And you say “why would I want to give that away?” When you do give it away and you write a note in it to somebody like “hope you enjoy this as much as I did,” it’s a real pleasure. The books that I would recommend are the books that anybody would recommend to anybody else. G

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