Gavin Thomas is at it again.
Last February, the Woodbury teen collected and donated 1,700 books for a charter school in one of Las Vegas' most at-risk neighborhoods. Seven months later, thanks to a breakfast conversation between his mother and a stranger, he's on a roundup again, this time for a small school in rural Oklahoma.
Thomas, a Woodbury High School junior, is collecting books for Wainwright Public School in east central Oklahoma. With the help of two classmates, he is already two-thirds of the way to reaching his goal of collecting 2,000 books by Oct. 14.
Chip Shimota, a Woodbury High School senior and friend, said it's "cool" knowing that the three are "helping out other kids who don't have the same opportunities that we have at Woodbury."
In September, Newsweek magazine ranked Woodbury High School 45th out of the top 500 high schools in the United States. Gavin, Chip and their friend, Chris Rolfing, who is also a junior, said working on the book drive has helped them realize that not every school is so fortunate.
"We were around when Gavin was doing this last year. And then we heard he was doing it again and wanted to help," Chris said.
Gavin's work to help Wainwright came about simply by chance.
In May, while visiting her oldest son at the University of Oklahoma, Gavin's mother, Jodi Thomas, struck up a conversation with Kara Webster, a Wainwright elementary and middle school teacher, over breakfast at a hotel in Norman, Okla. Webster was in town with her daughter, Payton, who was competing in a junior high school quiz bowl at the university.
Webster told Thomas of her experience as a teacher in a rural area with an extremely high poverty rate. She said that most of her students were behind one or two levels in reading and that she often struggled to find ways to engage with them. Limited by her budget and the school's small library, and with the nearest public library about 20 miles away, Webster said that she had been making her own oversized picture books as a way to make reading more fun for her students.
"I've heard of teachers occasionally buying pencils and things like that for their classroom," Jodi Thomas said. "Sometimes your kid just shows up unprepared. But I was absolutely blown away when she told me that she was making her own books."
Webster said in a phone interview last week that Wainwright, made up of about 130 students from kindergarten through the eighth grade, doesn't have "a lot of up-to-date books that interest these students today. So I have to get really creative."
Sometimes, she said, she buys books "out of my own pocket." Sometimes, she'll buy audio books. "Just anything to captivate their attention and meet different learning styles," she said.
Jodi Thomas said that as she listened to Webster during their breakfast conversation, she thought of Gavin's book drive from last winter and began thinking of a way to help.
"Kara is a really highly energetic person and I could tell that she really cared about her students," Jodi Thomas said. "She was doing everything she could to help them. But when you don't have the money to buy simple things like books, what can you do?"
Gavin and his friends spread the word of their book drive through Facebook and by making announcements to their lacrosse team and to Woodbury's National Honor Society at school. Gavin also received donations from friends in Michigan who he met while attending a summer school program at the University of Oxford in London.
The family's accountant, Magill Accounting, which paid for shipping the books to Las Vegas last winter, donated $300 toward shipping costs this time around. Gavin said he hopes to receive more donations in coming days to meet shipping costs, which he estimates will be $500 if he reaches his 2,000-book goal.
Webster, meanwhile, said last week that she's grateful for all the help.
"I'm just floored," she said. "I cannot believe it. That's just the coolest thing to get books into the hands of students. What Gavin is doing has just amazed me."
Callie Sacarelos is a Twin Cities freelance writer.