FORT WALTON BEACH, Florida – You see them popping up in neighborhoods across the state and the county. Little Free Libraries are a growing phenomenon that has children and adults alike opening hand-built kiosks or repurposed newspaper racks filled with books and turning to the printed page, and helping communities connect through reading.
Now, the Sylvania Heights neighborhood in Fort Walton Beach, Florida, will be joining the list of 50,000 Little Free Library sites across the globe, thanks to a champion for youth, a celebrity and unlikely community and business partners, including Gulf Power.
“We are a big part of this community, and we believe in giving back whenever we can,” said Carl Jackson, a Gulf Power Residential Energy consultant in Fort Walton Beach. “These Little Free Libraries are not just encouraging people to read, it’s giving neighbors opportunities to get to know each other.”
Dream to reality
Regina Davenport McCants of Navarre, Florida, was inspired to install a Little Free Library in the often-neglected Sylvania Heights, after seeing one in a nearby neighborhood.
As the founder of the nonprofit, the Philip Craig Davenport Foundation, she launched after her son was shot and killed at his home in 2013, she wanted to provide the libraries to give children in the neighborhood a positive outlet besides drugs, guns and illegal activities.
Growing up in the area, she has seen the neighborhood change over years.
“It wasn’t always this way,” said McCants, who used to operate a beauty salon in the neighborhood with her sister’s restaurant right next door. “We now have a generation of lost children and this is a good way to help teach these children how to read to boost their self-esteem.”
The Little Free Library is a simple neighborhood book exchanges inspired by the community gift-sharing network of “take a book, leave a book.”
The library organization usually takes applications for new libraries or add already-established libraries to their network. But McCants decided to apply in writing to a contest sponsored by daytime TV talk show host Whoopi Goldberg of “The View” for a chance to win a library for the neighborhood.
Her entry was one of 45 selected from thousands of other applications and announced by Whoopi Goldberg on television during her 61st birthday celebration. Along with winning the free library, audience members and others donated 20 books for McCants’ library and the other winners. Under terms of its deal with the program, the Philip Craig Davenport Foundation is obligated to encourage more donations, and to maintain and monitor its library for at least a year.
“I was totally surprised when they announced my name,” said McCants. “The show producers called and told me I should watch the show the next day. When they announced my name I just couldn’t believe it.”
Community steps up
After winning everything but the concrete to secure it, McCants wanted to expand beyond just the one library she won. She wanted to build a network of libraries in the neighborhood and approached the Northwest Florida Daily News with a simple request. They quickly donated five old newspaper boxes to house the libraries that needed sprucing up.
But it would cost at least $400 a piece to sandblast and paint.
“That’s where we stepped in,” said Jackson.
With close ties to the community, he knew the energy company could help make the dream of free libraries in the Sylvania Heights a reality and told McCants Gulf Power would help coordinate the painting.
“I knew the perfect person in the area who could help make these old newspaper racks come back to life with a unique design that would draw readers into the ‘libraries,’” said Jackson.
He enlisted the help of Keith Jette, a local body-art designer and owner of Wicked Paint, a paint shop for motorcycles and hot rods in Fort Walton Beach, who was featured on the Game Show Network’s (GSN) “Skin Wars: Fresh Paint.” He agreed to paint all the boxes with a fresh coat for only the cost of the materials … a far cry from the nearly $2,000 it would have cost otherwise.
“When Carl approached me about the idea, I knew it was something I had to be involved in,” said Jette. “My kids are my main focus and I wanted to make sure other kids in the neighborhood had the same chance to just pick up a book and read. Plus, this is a great opportunity to give back to our community.”
With the help of his kids, Jette used their ideas for the design work for the newspaper racks. Each one, he said, would be unique and “fun.”
“They had some good ideas about the color and design work and I wanted to make sure they were involved in the project with me,” added Jette. “I think everyone is really going to like what we did with them and how the design reflects the community feel.”
As part of the painting sponsorship, Gulf Power will place ads on the boxes that provide customers energy efficient tips to help them save money on their energy bills.
McCants can’t believe the community outpouring of support for her dream of providing books for children, and adults she added, to have to opportunity to read. That’s something a lot of people “outside” of Sylvania Heights take for granted, she said.
“This has been a journey of love and would not have been possible without the support of Gulf Power and other members of this community,” McCants said. “Goodness has truly come from the tragedy of my son’s death. The community has rallied behind this effort and we look forward to the libraries being installed in the neighborhoods and young children reaching inside for a book.”
The first of six Little Free Library McCants won is expected to be installed in the Sylvania Heights neighborhood March 7, and will be added to the global network of libraries. The five other libraries will be placed around the neighborhoods as they are finished.