Gift of Dreams

updated 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1997 AT 01:00 AM EST

DAYLIGHT WAS FADING FAST AS Barbara McKillip drove down a lonely road in the Alaskan woods a few years ago, looking for an obscure little town named Trapper Creek. She was beginning to wonder if she was lost when she spotted a cardboard sign festooned with balloons and reading, Barbara, Turn Here. "I had to laugh when I saw that," says McKillip. "If the sign hadn't been there, I would have missed that turn. It was pouring rain."

But no one in Trapper Creek was going to let her go astray, and no mere rainstorm can stop the dauntless McKillip—not when she has books to deliver. Last year her one-woman, Johnny Appleseed-like Libri Foundation donated 4,000 brand-new children's books—worth $59,000—to 65 rural libraries in 26 states. "Major corporations focus [their donations] on large cities," she explains. "In some ways, it's easier to get a $500,000 grant for a large city library than to get $500 for a small-town library nobody has ever heard of. Rural kids are just forgotten."

Not by McKillip, 45, a veteran librarian from Eugene, Ore. She ships books all over the country and likes to present them in person whenever she can: "It's always fun to watch children find a book by a favorite author." At Trapper Creek, McKillip spent the night at the log-cabin home of first-grade teacher Patty Christensen. The next morning she drove to the town's one-room library with 41 freshly minted volumes. Most of Trapper Creek's 300 residents dropped by that day, and McKillip cherishes the memory of two burly fathers reading an uproarious book called Oink—about a mother pig and her piglets—aloud to their kids.

"I have the time and energy to help other people's children," says McKillip, who has never married and who is funded largely by individual donors giving from $25 to $100. "It's not my destiny to have children, but I'm an honorary aunt to an awful lot of kids."

Indeed, says Sue Halpern, a member of the library board in the tiny logging town of Johnsburg, N.Y., "Barbara has a quiet genius for understanding kids and families. I completely admire her."

A onetime 4-H Club member who grew up mainly in Missouri, McKillip says the best times of her own childhood were spent in the countryside. "I remember showing cattle," says McKillip, the older daughter of an accountant and a homemaker. "But books were my window to the world." At 11, she read Desiree, a biography of a woman who had been engaged to Napoleon. "I felt part of that world of chandeliers and evening gowns," she says.

That window of imagination opened a bit wider for McKillip in 1973, when she graduated from Central Missouri State University and went on to earn master's degrees in history and library science. In 1977 she began a career as a reference librarian in the Eugene area, cutting back to part-time in 1995 to concentrate on her foundation. The seed for Libri had been planted eight years earlier during a visit to a friend who was teaching at a rural Oregon school. McKillip counted only six books in a classroom of 25 children. "This is dreadful!" she thought. "You can't teach anyone to love reading if this is all you have to offer."

With advice from her father, McKillip set up her foundation, though she had never raised money before, she admits, "except by selling Girl Scout cookies to my mother." In October 1990, soliciting funds only from friends and family, she donated $1,000 worth of books to an Oregon library. Four months later her foundation got an unexpected boost—and $5,000 in contributions—when the Wall Street Journal printed McKillip's letter about Libri. "Overnight," she says, "I was nationwide." In the first year she was able to help 24 libraries, most of them with annual budgets of under $25,000. Last year 250 libraries applied for books, and 65 were selected to choose from McKillip's handpicked list of 500 titles. She selects books that she believes will be "the classics of tomorrow. I like books about how friendships develop and fall apart—books that help kids get through phases in their lives."

McKillip, who lives frugally in a modest ranch house crowded with books, accepts no salary from her foundation, and it is the gratitude of kids all over the country that keeps her going. During the struggle to get Libri started, McKillip would ask herself, "Why am I spending nights and weekends doing this?" But then, she says, "I'd go to a library and watch the kids. It was like watching them open Christmas presents."


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