A former travel magazine editor, 29-year-old Midwest native Jess Hoffert is taking a 6-month break from the cubicle life to become immersed in the colorful culture of Southern California.

The Little Free Library that could

The Little Free Library that could

Once upon a time (in 2009, to be exact), there was a man named Todd Bol who lived in Hudson, Wisconsin. His mother loved to read. A lot. After she died, Todd built a model of a library, just big enough to hold a couple dozen books, and placed it in his front yard as a memorial to his mother. His neighbors thought it was the coolest thing, and word quickly spread about this unique legacy project. So Todd built a few more of them and gave them away. 

From there, the popularity continued to multiply. Regional news outlets began to feature the story of what became known as Little Free Libraries. And then national news outlets joined in. By the end of 2011, 400 Little Free Libraries were built across the country. One year later, that number exploded to 4,000. 

Now a nonprofit organization with national partners and sponsors, Little Free Library is nothing short of a phenomenon. The concept of the libraries is simple: Take a book. Share a book. But its impact is profound. As of today, more than 70,000 registered Little Free Libraries exist in the front yards of homes and businesses in all 50 states and across 80 countries. As of last Friday, one now stands proudly outside the gates of Príncipe de Paz church, with a small metal sign indicating that it’s the 72,102nd registered Little Free Library in existence. It’s also the 14th in the city of Santa Ana.   

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The journey to get a library for the church began in March, when I realized just how much the kids here love books. I had a few donated from my home church camp in Iowa, but the children quickly read those and craved more. I talked with Pastor Richard and he was immediately in favor of the idea to build a library at the church. We thought it would be a great way to collaborate with a local organization, so I met with the Community Outreach Coordinator of the Santa Ana Unified School District, Susie López-Guerra. We had a fantastic meeting, and she passed along the information to others in the district, but…long story short…that route didn’t gain much traction.

Plan B was to have someone at the church build the library, but the person we approached was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to build something as long-lasting and aesthetically pleasing as a pre-built model. On to Plan C: raise funds to purchase a pre-made model through the Little Free Library organization. This actually moved quite quickly, as there were individuals and congregations in my home church district—Northern Plains—who were eager to make this happen. By June, we had raised enough funds to order and purchase the library.

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The craftmanship of these libraries is truly beautiful. Each one purchased through the Little Free Library organization is handcrafted in the U.S.—and the post on which our library stands was made by an Amish man in Wisconsin. These last few mornings, it’s been heartwarming to be greeted by a Midwest-made library as I get ready for my morning run under the palm trees. I'm grateful to church member Miguel Cabrera and his son Mario for taking the time to "plant" it in front of the church.

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Most importantly, the kids at church love it and have already taken ownership of it. I helped form a Little Free Library committee made up of four girls who especially love to read. Their first task was to meet with their “supervisor,” a wonderful, creative high schooler at the church named Nathalie, and vote on their favorite design for the library. Nathalie proposed three ideas to them, and they landed on a “Very Hungry Caterpillar”-theme design with floral accents. Kids will also have the chance put their handprint and name on the support post. I can’t wait to see how it all turns out!

Within the first few days, dozens of books have already been borrowed from the library—and not just from kids at the church. It’s been fun to sit outside and watch people examine this new neighborhood landmark during their daily walks. Kids at the Pentecostal church next door pick up a book before entering church so they have something to keep them engaged during the service. And some kids already recognize what it is from a distance. “Look, it’s a Little Free Library!” one excitedly announced to their parents the other day.

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Overall, the members at Príncipe de Paz are enthusiastic about this new ministry—especially the children—but there is hesitation and worry about putting something like this outside the church gates where books can easily be stolen and the library can be vandalized. So far, we haven’t had any issues with either of these things (and it’s hard for a free book to be stolen, so even if they all disappear at some point, we’ll just replenish the library). But I will most definitely be praying that the library has a good, long life of ministry here.

One prayer was already answered on Sunday night, when the library dodged a close call with disaster (What's a good story without a little drama and suspense?). During a police pursuit, a drunk driver violently turned onto the street in front of the church, tossing a parked truck over the curb and sending it into the church gates. As I heard the deafening crash from my room, I immediately thought “Please, let the library be okay.” Two additional parked cars were struck by the moving vehicle, one adjacent to the library, but it didn’t jump the curb. Had it been hit any harder, that car could have easily smashed into the library post. Thankfully, nobody was hurt during the chase, including our library.

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I invite you to join me in praying for this new ministry at the church, that it may enrich the lives of children in the Santa Ana community and that it may help build lasting bridges with our neighbors. I’ll be leaving here in just four short days, and I’m so thrilled and proud that this Midwest-built library—funded by Midwest donors—will stand as a symbol of what can happen when we do small things with great love. 

May it live happily ever after.

PS - If you’d like to be part of this ministry and wish to donate books (we especially need more youth chapter books right now…in English or Spanish), please contact me here. And if you’d like to learn more about all of the awesome work done by the Little Free Library organization, visit littlefreelibrary.org.

Parting words for my Santa Ana family

Parting words for my Santa Ana family

Video: Five-ish months in five-ish minutes

Video: Five-ish months in five-ish minutes