By Cady Kuzmich
Clifton Park — Six years ago, Ellen Keegan began collecting books for troops. In the years since, her group of eight volunteers has shipped over 400,000 books to soldiers overseas and to 30 Veterans Administration hospitals.
Keegan, originally from Green Island, has called Clifton Park home for the last two decades. After teaching fourth grade in Troy for 30 years, she decided to throw herself into the world of charity in her retirement.
She said the non-profit group she worked with initially didn’t include books in their packages to the troops. “I’ve always loved reading,” said Keegan — and she thought the troops would, too.
The folks at the non-profit she was working for at the time felt differently. Keegan said the people she was working with told her bluntly, “Troops don’t read” — an idea she knew to be false.
“I was absolutely amazed anyone would say that,” she said, sitting in the Books for Troops office based in Halfmoon. Books line the walls around the whole room in towering bookshelves constructed by a local eagle scout.
At one point in her life, Keegan said she became very ill. Books, she said, were the only thing that kept her mind occupied. “It’s a wonderful escape,” she said. One she felt was worth sharing with those fighting abroad.
She started collecting books with her neighbors and storing them in her garage. Their first shipment was 20 boxes to Iraq.
The response? “Tremendous letters,” said Keegan. She keeps the many letters and photos sent from soldiers thanking her for sending books in a fat binder. “That’s when I realized I was on the right track,” she said. Keegan received letters from majors describing a significant change in soldiers’ morale since receiving books.
“I wrote back to the first soldier who wrote to me and said, “You got this wrong. I’m the one whose thanking you!” she recalled.
In 2011 Books for Troops received a huge boost in funding from the Hoyts Cinema in Clifton Park during a charity fundraiser. Books for Troops received a giant check worth $12,000. “That kept us going for two or three years,” said Keegan.
Keegan said the Superintendent of Oak Brook apartments in Clifton Park not only helped get the project going but agreed to donate two garages to the project as well.
Books for Troops recently stopped collecting books — they lacked the funds to ship them. Each box, which holds about 35 books, costs about $12.50 to mail. Keegan said they avoid shipping hardcover books since they’re so heavy and aren’t convenient for troops to carry. “No harlequin romances,” either, said Keegan.
Monetary donations have been very low recently — just three donations in the last three months. “We are suffering,” she said. Though, she noted “We’ve had some extremely generous donations.”
Keegan said she believes in Books for Troops with all her heart. It’s more than just sending books, she said. “We want them to know our hearts are in it.”
Donations can be made to Books for Troops and mailed to their office at 152 Oak Brook Commons, Clifton Park, NY.