Ellen Mouchawar – Doing Small Things by Kristin Abbott
“Not all of us can do great things, but all of us can do small things with great love.”
Helping out at the elementary school library was always Ellen Mouchawar’s favorite volunteer gig. The well stocked school library at her own children’s school was attended by several earnest volunteer parents, ready to recommend just the right book to a student, or support the teacher’s efforts when a class came through. Ellen enjoyed her time in the school library and thought she would continue to serve in this small way when her kids moved on to middle school. But Middle School was different, kids were more independent and needed to do their own research, there were too many volunteers taking up space, interaction with the students was not needed.
Minutes away from Ellen’s neighborhood school, across the freeway, was another school. Located in a neighborhood with all the familiar challenges of poverty, neglect and violence.
And they had no library.
A whole school of kids who had none at all, virtually no access to books that they might enjoy recreationally.
Ready to embrace other volunteer opportunities, Ellen began working with the Ravenswood Educational Foundation. As part of a committee working to develop an overarching plan for all libraries in the school system Ellen discovered the San Francisco 49ers Academy, a Ravenswood school district middle school, and their aching need for a library. She found space on campus in an unused portable ‘classroom.’ She made connections in the community to gather help and donations to create a library. On one Sunday, a local church provided funds to furnish the library, sent volunteers to help Ellen clear and clean the portable, build bookcases, and then provided $5,000 to buy books to stock the library with a ‘starter collection’ of books. Monday morning came and …
The doors remained closed.
With no librarian, there was no way for the children to have access to the riches inside the new library. So, Ellen stepped in to be the ‘temporary’ librarian. Ellen does not presume to take on the roll of a trained librarian or a teacher. She does not want to direct the learning or discipline the kids who come through the doors. “The teachers do a good job finding ‘just right’ books at the right level for their individual students,” she says. “I only want to be a friendly face, constantly trying to build to the interests of the kids.” She has been there for almost a decade. Ellen has demonstrated what passion and dedication means.
She has an enormous heart for the kids who long to read and a passion for the literature that opens the minds of the students at this school and she wants to share that with them.
Ellen says that she has gained so much more from her connection to the children and families of the community than she ever gave to them. Mentoring kids at the 49ers Academy has been deeply rewarding for Ellen’s own kids. Running a book club with the students has inspired truly deeply, thoughtful discussions. Receiving those letters back from students who may have been struggling, but are doing well now is always a thrill. Most of all, she sees more clearly the bubble she lives in on the other side of the freeway and she would like to bust some of the myths she hears about poorer neighborhoods, “There is a HUGE and inspiring passion for reading among the kids there (at the 49ers Academy). Parents on BOTH sides of the 101 want the same things for their children: to be safe, happy, and well-educated. East Palo Alto parents prioritize education, just as Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and Atherton parents do.The parents are deeply protective and caring…” The school is a gathering place for the community and Ellen is honored to be a part of it.
Naturally Ellen can’t do this forever and she is worried for the future of the ‘library.’ “I just don’t want to lose momentum.” Ellen’s role in the community has grown over the years. She sits on a community educational advisory board among other support roles she takes on. The district is moving towards a comprehensive middle school and when that happens, the collection might move into a larger, more comprehensive, middle school library. “There’s an opportunity to do incredible things from a library standpoint. It should be a research base, with computers and real resource librarians. It could be so much more. How do we create a 21st century experience for the librarians and the students? How do we provide what this community needs under the umbrella of preparing our kids better for high school?” The problem is that the money isn’t there. The district will have to meet many basic needs before it can create a dream library.
Although Ellen has never been successful in finding other volunteers to assist in the library, her mother, Anne Rosenthal, has been volunteering with her since the beginning. The experience has been a great source of happiness to them both. The library receives no funds from the district and to expand and continue to keep the collection up to date, Ellen must rely on her trips to Costco and Kepler’s (a local independent bookstore). Family, friends and the community have always been very generous in donating books to the library as well.
“I didn’t start this by saying, ‘I’m going to change the world.’ It was just a simple project, to work together and improve things for everyone,” says Ellen.
If you are reading a post at the Nerdy Book Club, I know you have a love of reading, that you respect and value books and understand how precious it is to have access to them. I hope Ellen’s story encourages you to look for a way that you can help spread the love and increase access in your own neighborhood and everywhere.
Kristin Abbott currently works as a designer and art director for her own creative concept company (Abbott Illustration) which designs sets and events for amusement parks, ice festivals and lantern festivals. She also likes to find time to illustrate children’s books and magazines to keep in touch with her love for children’s literature. Many years ago she worked as a newspaper reporter and that led her to tell this story to the Nerdy Book Club. If you are moved to action by Ellen’s efforts you can find the San Francisco 49ers Academy wish list at the following url: