20,000 Pennies: How a Book Club Transformed our School Community by Sarah FitzHenry

I stood in the middle of the room and listened to the sound of more than 20,000 pennies clinking and jingling around me. To my left, a fourth grade student helped her first grade buddy to count the nickels held in her sweaty palm (they had to start over after losing count at 12). To my right, a math teacher modeled pinching shut a full roll of 40 quarters. Somewhere on the other side of the room, a cheer erupted. “A thousand!” A nine year old shouted with glee. “We have more than a thousand dollars! How many kids do you think that will help?”


More than a thousand dollars. And it all started with a book.


Out of My Mind, by Sharon Draper, to be specific. This award-winning student-favorite was a natural choice for our first ever Family Book Club. Over the month of January 5th graders and their families shared Melody’s story, following her life with Cerebral Palsy and her struggle to be seen as smart, worthy, and human. Then, we gathered on a chilly evening in February to share our experiences with the story. After discussion, activities, and dinner, we gathered to hear from a guest speaker: Kara McClurken, of Charlottesville nonprofit Bennett’s Village. Kara spoke to student readers and their families about her son Bennett, who loved to play but couldn’t fully enjoy traditional playgrounds in his motorized wheelchair. When Bennett passed away last year, his family and friends came together and pledged to create an all-abilities playground so that all Charlottesville kids could learn and play together. We laughed, cried, and cheered with Kara, and I thanked her for creating a deep, real-world connection for my readers. The event had gone well, I was happy, and I figured that was that.


But when I arrived at school the next day, there was a group of 5th grade boys waiting at my desk. They couldn’t stop thinking about Bennett, Melody, and Kara. They asked if they could create a fundraiser for Bennett’s Village in our school community. They organized lunch meetings, invited an administrator, and, over sandwiches, explained the vision of Bennett’s Village. Within 15 minutes, they had a stamp of approval for their fundraiser.


They had the drive, but needed a little help. So one of the 5th graders brought his Bennett’s Village excitement home, and recruited the big guns: his 8th grade brother. The 8th grader loved what he had learned, and had an even bigger dream: What if a group of middle schoolers worked to create reading, learning, and playing experiences for real kids in Charlottesville? He wanted to run fundraisers and raise awareness, as well as build Little Free Libraries, and collect books to fill them. Would I be his faculty mentor?


Twelve middle schoolers signed on to the team. They launched a fundraiser they called the Change Challenge, speaking to a packed community meeting about where their money would go. Over the next few weeks, as middle school students collected their quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies, our group learned and learned. We met with Kara again to learn more about Bennett’s life, the things he loved, and the things that had frustrated and limited him. We explored common barriers to play, learning from a short film called ‘Ian’ and stepping out of our comfort zones to experience what it’s like to try and enjoy playground equipment that doesn’t fit a variety physical needs. We began planning our Little Free Libraries, dreaming of where they might go, and launched a community-wide book drive to collect literature to fill them.


The impact grew and grew. Little brothers and sisters heard about the middle school Change Challenge and begged us to bring it to the lower school community, as well. So our group brought a special, adapted version of the fundraiser to K-4 classrooms, too. I watched, amazed, as middle schoolers volunteered outside of school hours and worked through their lunches and study halls. They hand-built their two community Little Free Libraries, one with special dimensions and details created specifically to accommodate readers that use wheelchairs (and we all cried a little as we painted it Bennett’s favorite colors and added some extra heart), and collected almost 600 books to fill them. And then they delivered the first to the Virginia Discovery Museum, along with boxes and boxes of books to keep it stocked once little hands emptied it out.


The group was so passionate, our school community couldn’t help but jump in. And so they got to watch, amazed, as elementary students and their families emptied their piggy banks for Bennett’s Village. Before long, it was all anyone could talk about. Students asked so many great questions, we dedicated a whole week in library class to learning more about Bennett, and other people who use special tools to move, breathe, eat, and live their lives. Together we learned new words, considered new perspectives, and looked at familiar sights and experiences in new ways.


When our K-4 fundraiser finally wrapped up, we were left wondering what to do with more than 150 pounds of change. Our amazing math team turned it into a community activity, where older students coached younger buddies as they sorted, rolled, and counted every last coin. With more than 200 Lower School students participating, all 150 pounds of change were prepped and ready to go to the bank within one school day. And that little fundraiser that started as an idea from a group of ten year olds? It raised more than $1,450.


The money is exciting and impressive, but even more impactful has been the shift in our community’s mindset. Words like ‘accessible’ and ‘inclusive’, which I’d never heard in the hallways before, filled conversations. First graders started studying and designing playgrounds in their homerooms, and brought me drawings of the special equipment they created to fit wheelchairs and oxygen tanks. Fourth graders 3D-printed Braille signage for the nonfiction section of our library. Parents asked how they could donate and get involved. Students began thinking more carefully about their language and their community, and started asking questions that may shape and change our school in wonderful ways.


The experience has changed my teaching, too. It showed me that if we want to see buy-in an engagement from our learners, we need to give them real tasks that matter, and that make a difference in their world. Connecting with the greater Charlottesville community sparked astonishing passion in my students, who are capable of so much more than I give them credit for. And it brought me back to the realization that lead me to librarianship in the first place: stories can change everything. Our year working with Out of My Mind and Bennett’s Village changed the collective heart and mindset of our school, and brought out the leadership and empathy in each one of our students.


And it all started with a book.


I’ve had many parents reach out and ask – what will our Family Book Club read next year? I’m not sure yet. But whatever we choose… I can’t wait to see where that story will take us.




Sarah FitzHenry believes that libraries and the books they hold are critical tools to help create the next generation of citizens and leaders. Sarah’s K-8 student-centered library encourages young readers to take control of their learning, pursue their passions, and experience the world beyond their comfort zones. As the voice behind library blog Fitz Between the Shelves, Sarah writes and speaks internationally about school libraries, technology, student empowerment, and the joy of making really messy mistakes. Follow her adventures on Instagram @fitzbetweentheshelves and Twitter @fitzbtwenshelves.