Seventeen- year-old Christie Greason is spreading kindness and literacy to at-risk kids, one donated book at a time
When the UPS driver heaved ten enormous boxes onto Donna Greason’s front doorstep and asked her to sign for the shipment, she knew it had to be a mistake. “I thought he had the wrong house,” she laughs, recalling that unexpected afternoon delivery in September 2015—until she examined the return label and the magnitude of the gift dawned on her. Two months earlier, her 17-year-old daughter, Christie, had written to the top five publishing houses in the country seeking donations for her new initiative, The Benignitas (Kindness) Project. Proud and pleasantly surprised, Donna immediately called her daughter at school to give her the good news.
Christie, a junior at Mayo High School, was “speechless.” She’d founded The Kindness Project that June to provide books to disadvantaged youth in the Rochester community. She hadn’t received any written response to her request, so “to be honest I’d kind of forgotten about it,” she says with the effervescent, bubbling lilt of a friendly teenage girl. As it turns out, both Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House answered the call by donating $7,707 worth of brand new books.
“I was just so thankful they were willing to be so generous,” says Christie. “I mean, they have helped so many children.”
Those children are the at-risk kids served by a half dozen or more Rochester area agencies, including the Olmsted County Juvenile Probation Department; Rochester Public Schools Truancy Intervention and Students in Transition programs; the Justice and Opportunity for Youth Program; and underprivileged students at Friedell, Christie’s former middle school. Since starting her project, Christie has distributed approximately 1,300 new and very gently used books, each lovingly tied with a ribbon and a handmade bookmark lettered with any one of her favorite inspirational quotes.
“I’m not just bringing a box of books into the place, I’m wrapping them with a saying and they’re individually handed out by social workers or probation officers or county attorneys [for privacy reasons],” says Christie. “It’s really personal. I want it to be like a gift for the child who is receiving it. Because after all, one of the main goals of my project is to let kids know that someone really cares about them.”
The impetus of the project started when Christie, a lifelong avid reader, became a student representative on the Olmsted County Department of Corrections Task Force in November 2014. The mission of the Task Force is “to promote safety, justice and restoration through service to the community.” Christie was already an appointed student representative on the Olmsted County Youth Commission, a teen leader for the Mayo Clinic Young Volunteers, and an active member of both the Mayo High School Key Club and the Health Organization for the Purpose of Education (HOPE), and she really wanted to understand what the Task Force does so she could maximize her potential role there.
“Because a lot of the stuff they talk about is much more advanced than my level, you know what I mean, because they’re like, professionals,” she says. “But I wanted to start a project that I felt could really make an impact and change people’s lives.”
That she has, according to Julie Duff, senior probation officer at Olmsted County Community Corrections. Duff has distributed approximately 100 of Christie’s books so far.
“One of the biggest comments is, ‘You mean I don’t have to return this book? It’s mine to keep?’” says Duff, adding that kids in the juvenile justice system also experience difficulty in school, whether behavioral problems, truancy, or learning difficulties, or even simply barriers to access learning materials. “Even kids who ‘don’t like to read’ suddenly enjoy it when the book is theirs to keep. I think that is the difference.”
That’s how Mary Gorfine feels, too, as program coordinator of the Olmsted County Youth Commission on which Christie was appointed in her sophomore year.
“Christie understands that everyone makes mistakes, it’s how we learn, and that judgmental attitudes are rarely helpful,” says Gorfine. She says Christie has been active in a number of other commission activities as well, spanning environmental awareness, mental health and suicide awareness, and civic engagement.
“Christie is determined to do her part to make our world a better place and this project is a perfect illustration of her commitment,” says Gorfine. “I cannot begin to say how proud I am of her and her work.”
That work is rapidly becoming a part time job, although Christie already has one of those, too, working Friday nights and summers at Hy-Vee Grocery (she just used her tax return to buy more supplies for the project). But every chance she gets, says Donna, her daughter goes down to the basement room she and her husband set up for Christie to organize her project, assemble her bookmarks and wrap her books. Christie has also enlisted the crafting skills of younger children at the Hindu Samaj Temple’s Balvikas class to help make bookmarks, and earlier this year she secured a $1,000 grant from the Citizens Advisory Council at Northrop Community Education Center to purchase more books. Christie’s goal is to distribute 5,000 books by the end of the summer, and so Donna helps out where she can, as does Christie’s twin sister, Gracie—they think it’s fun.
“We’ll sit and talk and talk and that’s been a very special time, too,” says Donna, who also relishes the time spent in the car with Christie, driving to distribute the books all over town. She says her family has always incorporated service work into their lives—(for seven years running, Christie and Gracie have done all the Christmas shopping and wrapping when the Greasons participate in the Lutheran Social Services Adopt a Family program), but that Christie just naturally, genuinely loves helping other people.
“Truly the most important thing, I think, is to be kind, and that’s what she is,” says Donna. “We have so many hopes and dreams for our children, but to be kind and to serve other people, I mean, I think that’s what it’s all about.”
Christie says she found one of her favorite quotes to write on the bookmarks in the Wonder series by R.J. Palacio, which arrived in the donated Penguin Random House shipment. It reads, “Hope is like the sun. When it’s behind the clouds, it’s not gone. You just have to find it.”
“I really want to let these kids know that even if they’re in a difficult situation right now, if they have hope, everything will change for the better,” says Christie. “And I really hope that these books are just the beginning of that for them.”
— Maggie Ginsberg is a Minnesota-born freelance writer and occasional contributor to Rochester Magazine.