By Jennifer Delgado)
The children's books stamped with Anne Smedinghoff's name sat in cardboard boxes for several months in a River Forest church basement.
First Presbyterian Church members collected the books days after the young diplomat died in Afghanistan. She was on her way to a school dedication in April, carrying books she planned to donate, when she was killed by a suicide bomber.
In keeping with the River Forest native's final mission, residents of the small west suburb gathered new and gently used books to donate to kids in need. The book drive was one of many across the country held in her name.
"I just wanted a compassionate response to such a horrible tragedy," said Margaret Brown, a River Forest resident who helped spearhead the local effort. "I just thought this would be a good way for us to give a little comfort to the Smedinghoffs."
On Wednesday night, the 1,800 books found a permanent home in the offices of a Chicago nonprofit helping struggling, young mothers.
A group of high school freshmen and their Bible group leaders loaded the paperbacks and hardcovers in four vans and delivered them to New Moms Inc. in the Austin neighborhood. "Curious George" and "The Cat in the Hat" poked out of the 98 boxes, along with a book titled "Peace."
The donated literature will be used for the organization's lending library program that allows parents to borrow books they can't afford to buy, said Laura Zumdahl, president and CEO. The program teaches women, some of whom are homeless, the importance of reading and spending time with their children.
"We were in need of new materials pretty desperately. This comes at a great time," she said. "Lots of kids here in Chicago will be read to and get to enjoy those books."
A neighbor of the Smedinghoffs sent an email to River Forest parents in early April, encouraging them to pay tribute to the 25-year-old by placing white "peace" ribbons around trees. That sparked the idea for the book drive.
Someone forwarded the email to Brown, who sensed residents wanted to participate, so she and others organized a drive-thru one afternoon where people could receive a white ribbon in exchange for a children's book.
A member of St. Luke's Parish in River Forest, where Smedinghoff's parents attend church, contacted a local ribbon distributor, who sold the material at cost. An anonymous donor paid for the fabric and 1,000 U.S. flags that were passed out that day in the First Presbyterian Church's parking lot. One thousand dollars was collected, too, and given to the Aschiana Foundation, which provides education and health care for children in Afghanistan.
Among the hundreds of people who showed up was an aunt of Smedinghoff's, who, according to Brown, remarked the outreach was the sort of thing Anne would have done.
Since her death, schools and organizations in the Chicago area and at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Smedinghoff's alma mater, have hosted book drives in her memory.
Over the summer, First Presbyterian members and Bible campers sorted through the piles of books and placed white stickers commemorating Smedinghoff inside.
Some of the books were distributed to Illinois prison inmates as part of an ongoing program supported by St. Luke's.
The program allows inmates to record themselves reading a new book before sending the CD and book to their child, said Sister Colleen Nolan, director of religious education at St. Luke's.
Prison rules prohibited stickers in the books, Nolan said, but "we knew that it was done to honor Anne and to keep her legacy alive."
At New Moms, employees will arrange the donated books by age level and place them on shelves. Case managers will also take some books with them when they go and visit moms and their children.
And when mother and child read together, they may see the sticker with an American flag in the book. It reads: In memory of our heroine, Anne Smedinghoff.