Sometime in November, after yet another conversation with her fellow teachers about the challenges of this disrupted school year, Gretchen Polkinghorne decided it was time to ask for a bit of help.

After months of distance learning, her students at Community of Peace Academy, a charter school on the east side of St. Paul, had been welcomed back for hybrid instruction — only to be sent home again a week later because of surging COVID-19 cases in the community. Polkinghorne, a coordinator for English language learners, knew many students might not have anything to read, or had already made their way through whatever books they had at home. So she posted a note on Facebook, wondering if anyone happened to be looking to clean out their bookshelves.

"I was like: 'If I just put this out in the universe, let's see if people have books they would want to give to kids,' " she said.

That was on a Thursday night. On Friday, when Polkinghorne came home from work, there were 600 children's books sitting on her front porch.

The universe, via Facebook, via Polkinghorne's sister, via her sister's friend, via her sister's friend's neighbor, indeed had some books for kids. Boxes and boxes them had been sitting in the garage of a Woodbury home, gathered by a pair of teenage sisters who have spent the last few years gathering and handing out books to children.

Ann and Clara Radke, now 14 and 13, started collecting donated books nearly five years ago, when they were elementary students themselves. Their dad, Rich Radke, was serving as a reading tutor with the Minnesota Reading Corps, and the girls were looking for a way they could also give back to people in their east metro community.

Together, they came up with an idea: gathering books that they could hand out to families and kids for free.

They put together a Facebook page and a website and gave their effort a name, Bound to Be. Mostly through word of mouth, people began finding the Radkes and showing up with books. There were donations large and small; a middle school clearing out some of its library to transform it into a more tech-focused space provided more than 3,000 books. At one point, the Radkes had so many books that they could nearly fill a storage unit.

"I think our goal was 5,000, and we ended up getting 13,000," said Clara.

That's actually just where the Radkes stopped counting. Rich Radke estimates the girls have collected and found new homes for about 14,000 books.

Hundreds of the books went to preschool-age children served by the Anoka/Washington County Head Start, where program operations coordinator Joyce Kulla said she was bowled over by the sight of two young girls hauling in box after box of books. There were enough to fill shelves in classrooms, and to send more home — including extra, age-appropriate books for younger and older siblings.

The Radkes haven't been able to visit since the pandemic started, but Kulla said Ann and Clara made several book drop-offs before then, and always stuck around to read to the preschoolers.

"I just felt like the angels were coming into our building," Kulla said. "What better joy can you give to children than a book and your time?"

Polkinghorne spent some of the week before Thanksgiving feeling some of that joy herself as she sorted through the books that had landed on her porch. Along with used books, many in the dozen or so boxes were brand-new: shiny box sets of classics and new titles, with books for students from prekindergarten all the way up to middle school. She hoped that with the Radkes' donation and a few others, she'd have enough to package up five books for each of Community of Peace Academy's 300 elementary students.

Sure, the students can log on to their laptops or iPads and read books online. But Polkinghorne said it's critical that during all these months at home they also can get comfortable with — and maybe even lost in — a real book.

"We just wanted to give them that experience of sitting down in a chair, reading a book, and getting something new," she said.

The school will hand out the books, along with other classroom supplies, to students and families next week during two days of curbside pickups.

Ann and Clara, at home for months of distance learning themselves, said they're happy to know they might have brought a bit of happiness to other kids in a particularly tough year. They're hoping to keep it up; their new goal is hitting the 20,000 mark for books collected and donated.

Said Ann: "It just makes you feel really good, and it gives you hope for the world."

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790