The Citizen Spotlight is a project I started with the Oklahoma Gazette. In each issue, we highlight a person in our community who stands out for their leadership, kindness, and good deeds. Read it on the Oklahoma Gazette website here.
Lisa Gerard of Little Read Wagon
Lisa Gerard believes in access to information, even if that means getting it while you wait out the spin cycle.
A former special education teacher from Mississippi, she started Little Read Wagon to share the joy of reading with people of all ages and backgrounds living in underserved areas.
In 2020, after moving from Mississippi to Norman, Gerard started volunteering with local advocacy groups, including Laundry Love Central Oklahoma, which visits different laundry mats to help provide free laundry for those needing help. She soon noticed another need that could be met.
“I saw the kids running around the laundromat with not much to entertain themselves. I thought it seemed like a place where you could really introduce books and literacy,” Gerard said. “I started researching online about book access and laundromat libraries, things like that. We started out with storytime. I put everything in my kids’ old wagon and pulled it into the laundromat, and the kids there just loved it.”
What started as storytime would soon evolve into something more. As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, Gerard had to hold back on the storytime sessions and pivot the project into a new direction.
“Because so much shut down, we moved outside and just started giving out books to kids,” Gerard said. “Then adults started asking if I could have books for them, so we started getting more. They love crosswords and puzzle books. We also give out coloring books and crayons.”
The little project soon grew, and Lisa turned Little Read Wagon into a nonprofit that would allow her to reach more people and provide more books.
“We go everywhere Laundry Love Central Oklahoma goes. They have nine laundromats around OKC, and they go to a different one each month,” Gerard said. “I have about six volunteers who come and help. We also do homeless outreach in OKC, community events and mutual aid fairs. We also stock bookshelves in different areas so people can still get books when we aren’t there. We’re able to stock for groups like The Children’s Recovery Center of Oklahoma, the Center for Children and Families in Norman, Crossroads Family Services, Head Start and more. We provide their books. Diversion in OKC works with kids who have family members who are incarcerated, and we were able to start a library for them.”
More than books often go into reading, so Lisa began stocking reading glasses, childrens’ pajamas, and stuffed animals at various donation sites.
“We started adding reading glasses after someone at homeless outreach told me he would read books if he had glasses, so we started getting those and giving them out,” Gerard said. “The pajamas and stuffed animals we started as help in setting up bedtime routines and teaching the importance of having a reading routine.”
Access to literature looks different for everyone, and Lisa strives to meet people where they are in life and help in their journey.
“I’ve had people ask, ‘Why can’t they just go to the library?’” Gerard said. “When you really start digging deep into it, you realize that there are a lot of people who don’t have stable residences. They can’t get a library card because you have to show proof of residency. People like those in my homeless group don’t want library books because not only do they have to get to the library, which can be a transportation issue, they then have to get back to return the books or worry about maybe having to pay a fine. During COVID, libraries were shut down for a long time. We’re just meeting people where they’re at. If you’re struggling to get your laundry done, you probably can’t take the time to go to the library or a bookstore, so we just meet them where they’re at. And they can have the books; there are no strings attached. They can pick their own whenever they like. This area has a large Spanish-speaking population, so we always try to have some bilingual books available. Each place kind of has its own little flavor in terms of the demographics and the population, and we try to accommodate that.
“We also drop off books on people’s porches. I started doing that during COVID when kids weren’t in school. I had people telling me they couldn’t get library books because the libraries were closed. So just in Norman, If they tell me the age and interests of the kids in their home, I will try to use my teacher magic and put together a bag of books for them and drop it off on their porch, then exchange it out two weeks later. We started doing that as a creative way to get books out there during no contact, but it’s really taken off. I’ve got several families that I’ve been doing that for about a year and a half. Many are grandparents who have grandkids who’ve been virtual schooling. So it was just something to help out and to get books out there,” Gerard said.
The books come from all over — some from generous donors, some from Lisa herself. Soon Little Read Wagon will surpass 25,000 books given to people in marginalized communities.
“A lot of our books come from donations. We have book drives, and people drop books off on my porch constantly. Norman Public Schools did a book drive for us in February. Others we buy, we get some grants and some money donated. There are organizations that allow us to buy a pallet of them in bulk. We were able to pass out about 10,000 books the first year. Then we crossed 20,000 sometime around December of last year; now we’re getting really close to 25,000.”
Gerard’s love of reading is a passion she enjoys sharing in all areas of her life in ways that make it fun for everyone, including dressing up as Mrs. Frizzle from the popular series The Magic Schoolbus.
“My husband, Alan, is a meteorologist at the National Weather Center,” said Gerard. “They do a lot of education about the weather, so I dress up as Miss Frizzle and take weather books into schools and places and help educate through that.”
“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “When I was a teacher, I had to worry about everybody’s reading level and advancing them every day. Now I’m able to just show kids that reading is fun. They’re able to pick out books they like, find things they’re interested in, share them with each other, and simply enjoy reading and learning.”
To learn more about Little Read Wagon or how you can help, visit www.littlereadwagonok.com.