50 years ago, one Lexington woman began a global outreach

Susan Ishmael
Susan Ishmael

It’s easy to get jaded when the world seems so unpredictable and irrational.

It’s simple to believe that one person can’t make a difference for good, to believe that there’s really nothing anyone can do to make the world a better place. And then you hear stories like Harriet Van Meter’s, the founder of the International Book Project.

In 1965, Van Meter traveled to India. Back then, the political climate was not only unpredictable and irrational, it was also volatile. The United States was early in an unpopular war, and the world was changing quickly. People were skeptical and cynical, then, too.

While Van Meter traveled throughout India, she saw people standing in line, waiting for the opportunity to read books. I imagine that she was struck by the simplicity of her epiphany: She could ship books to people in India who requested them. She could place small classified ads in Indian newspapers, letting people know that she could send them books. It would be a small way to help. Maybe she could make a difference in their lives. Maybe she could change her own life, too.

She began collecting books in the basement of her Lexington home and shipping them to India, and then, as her partnerships grew, to others around the world. Soon, she and her friends were sending 10,000 books a year.

In 1983, Van Meter moved International Book Project to a warehouse on Delaware Avenue, where it still thrives. In 1986, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her work as a champion for world literacy. Today, the book project ships over 300,000 books a year, and it continues to grow.

As her legacy lives on, I’m reminded daily how one person can make a difference. That’s how it happened to me, too.

In the spring of 2010, I was working in Ghana, West Africa, with a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating child slavery. I will never forget one small girl named Doris pulling me aside on my first night in the city to read to me. We sat together on the floor in a hot corner of a hallway and she tentatively uncurled her fingers to reveal a crumpled and worn pamphlet — a VCR manual. She crawled into my lap and insisted, “I am small, but I can read. Listen, Mama Susan.”

That’s how I discovered International Book Project, because I wanted to ship books — real books — to Doris. And so we did. In 2012, International Book Project shipped well over 2,000 books to the group home where Doris lives, and to two nearby schools.

Because International Book Project follows Van Meter’s original vision of fostering relationships between people around the world, we still hand pick our shipments.

If a partner requests 20 books, we send them. If they need a full sea container filled with 20,000 books, we can do it. Today, three generations of Kentuckians have participated in her dream as financial donors, book donors and volunteers. Each person has contributed to making a difference in people’s lives through literacy.

On Sept. 8, International Book Project celebrates UNESCO’s International Literacy Day with a series of readings around Lexington to raise awareness of the importance of literacy and reading, and that books — access to books — can change lives.

On Saturday, Sept. 17, International Book Project is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a fund-raiser at the new Pivot Brewing Company on Delaware Avenue, right next to our warehouse. You can support a great cause and have a fun time, too. We know from experience that everyone can make a difference. Why don’t you join us?

Susan Ishmael, a freelance writer in Mount Sterling, is on the board of directors for the International Book Project.