When kids come into Hennepin County Medical Center, it’s usually not good news. They are usually the sick, the scared, the wounded and the ornery.
Eventually they are also the bored, and so are their parents.
That’s where Lenore Gendron comes in.
About five years ago, Gendron made HCMC’s Children’s Literacy Program her baby and her mission, culling thousands of books from friends, garage sales and discount tables.
She’s been so dogged, the program has expanded from the pediatric unit to other areas of the hospital. In fact, Lenore’s budget shopping heroics now account for 6 percent of the 30,000 books HCMC gives to patients and their families every year.
If you’ve been to the hospital’s ER and passed the time with a pot boiler, it’s likely courtesy of Lenore. If you checked into the OB clinic and paged through “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” you can thank Lenore. Ditto the picture books in the lab and the literary efforts in the dentistry waiting rooms.
But Lenore, a retired Minnetonka teacher, didn’t stop at books. Many of the toys that keep the kids occupied often come from her, as do the tennis balls used for physical therapy or to cover the bottoms of walkers. She gets those from her gym following tennis tournaments.
“If Lenore even suspects friends have books stashed away in closets, she gets them,” said Christine Hill, HCMC’s spokeswoman.
So far, Lenore has provided the facility with more than 10,000 books, a thousand toys and more than a thousand tennis balls. She has done it so quietly that even some members of her family were not aware of efforts and generosity.
That changed on Friday, when family members and admiring HCMC staff threw a surprise party for Lenore.
When she spotted a large group of nurses, family members and hospital staff at the end of a hallway, she snapped: “Well, look who’s here. You didn’t tell me about this.”
‘Thank you. It makes me smart’
Lenore was provided dozens of thank-you letters from kids and adult patients, including one that said, “Thank you for the books. It makes me smart.”
Dr. Diane Cutts, a physician at the facility, even came up with a definition of a Lenore (noun): “A one-woman stealth operation that has single-handedly enriched the lives of thousands of children at HCMC.”
Lynne Burke, coordinator of the literacy program, said Lenore shows up at least a couple of times each month with hundreds of books.
“People are so appreciative that they can take the books home,” said Burke. “Sometimes it’s the only book they have. It’s not just for the patients, it’s for their families. If you can make a family member feel better, the patient will do better.”
Laurie Kusek, Lenore’s daughter-in-law, arranged the gathering to celebrate all the charity work Lenore has done over the years.
“It’s not just what you have done for the hospital, it’s what you have done for all of us here,” Kusek said.
“You can’t take it with you,” she said.
Son Gary Gendron said his mother’s basement is often filled high with boxes of books and other items that she is getting ready to give away.
The day before the celebration, in fact, Lenore had bought 18 bags of books and 11 bags of toys. She also scrounges for clothes and toys for other charities such as St. Joseph’s Home for Children.
That’s when the 84-year-old is not swimming, playing golf or substitute teaching in the Hopkins school district.
Stores and thrift outlets know her, and cut her deals because they know that if Lenore is buying, it’s going to a good cause.
Now she’s on the lookout for back-to-school clothes, gloves, shoes, belts and of course, books.
The other day, she noted that one Wayzata garage sale had lots of children’s clothes that would be discounted later in the sale. She waited until the last day, was up early and pounced, buying up 46 pairs of pants for needy kids.
“I guess I’m kind of an opportunist that way,” she said.