It started a month ago with a concerned Minnesota mother’s frustrated Facebook post. It ended last week with the Las Vegas school where her son teaches receiving a surprise gift of more than 1,500 donated books.
But in the days in between, it was a young family friend from Woodbury who did the legwork to make it happen.
Gavin Thomas, a Woodbury High School sophomore, collected and donated the books for a charter school in one of Las Vegas’ most at-risk neighborhoods after learning that Brandon Payette, a family friend and teacher there, was spending his own money to buy books for his classroom.
Gavin got the idea for helping out after reading a Facebook post about a month ago from Payette’s mother, Mary Pat Payette, of St. Paul. She indicated that her son’s school — the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a K-12 charter school — was in dire need of books and asked for book donations to help him stock the classroom.
Brandon Payette is a sixth-grade history teacher at the school.
“I started thinking about it and tossed the idea around for a while with my mom,” Gavin said. “And then we just decided to go for it.”
He immediately sent e-mails to his hockey team and band director and posted a request on Facebook.
“The day after I posted it, people came up to me at school and gave me books,” he said. “And if they didn’t have books, some people grabbed their wallets and took out money and said, ‘I hope this helps.’ ”
In addition to collecting everything from encyclopedias to children’s books from friends and family, Gavin also picked up books from strangers who heard about his project.
“It’s so great for Gavin to see that if you ask, people really want to help,” his mother, Jodi, said. “It’s not even that difficult. Just figure out what you want to do and follow through on it.”
A few of Gavin’s friends helped him write messages on cards and put them in some of the books. “My grandpa read ‘Old Yeller’ to me when I was younger,” he said. “So I wrote that on the card and said I hope they enjoy it.”
Jodi Thomas said the family’s accountant, Magill Accounting, offered to pay for shipping, “which, from the parents’ standpoint, was great because we had no idea he was going to get so many.”
Gavin surpassed his goal of 1,000 books when a friend dropped off 300 books the morning of Jan. 31, the collection deadline he set.
“We appreciate any books that are donated,” said Chris Smith, the school’s director. “It’s something that goes straight to the classrooms for the students.”
The academy’s younger grades have a library, but the sixth- through 12th-graders do not. The school gave Payette a grant to buy books, which he said was helpful, but it wasn’t enough to get the variety or number desired.
Jodi Thomas said it was important for her son to be aware that not all children have books readily available.
“We’re a big reading family,” she said. “Gavin has grown up with books, and he doesn’t even know about having limited access to them.”
Brandon Payette, who is in his second year at the Las Vegas school, was assigned there by Teach for America, which places recent college graduates into low-income schools across the United States. He said working for the organization has given him the opportunity to see firsthand the issues that America’s teachers and students face.
“It’s definitely the most challenging job I’ve ever had,” he said. “But with that comes the greatest reward, even if it’s just a kid finding a book they really like.”
Callie Sacarelos is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.