'Start small:' Fairfield teen's charity gets books to thousands worldwide

Photo of Amanda Cuda

FAIRFIELD — Brooks Barry’s path to philanthropy didn’t start with a box of books sitting on the floor of his local library.

By the time the then-8-year-old Fairfield resident saw that box, he and a group of his friends had already formed a book club with a special twist.

“We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if, for every book we do, we started a project (based on that book)?’” said Barry, now 17 and a junior at Stanford Online High School.

For instance, when the group read the classic “Old Yeller,” which is about a dog, they earned money to buy pet food for an animal shelter. The group had a few of these projects under its belt when Barry and the other members spotted the box of books on the floor of the library.

A curious kid, Barry asked why the books were there. He was told that they had gone out of circulation and were getting sent away to be shredded. To someone like Barry who loved books and all they can provide, that prospect was horrifying, he said.

He had to take action.

“(I) offered to take the books,” he said. “We found a charter school in Bridgeport to donate the books to, because they really needed books at the time.”

Instead of becoming pulp, the books found their way into the arms of those who needed them, and Barry and his friends found a cause. They founded Wonderland BookSavers, a charity that, as of last year, donated more than 825,000 books to children in the United States and beyond. Wonderland’s donations have traveled as far as Bangladesh, Sierra Leone and other locations across the globe.

Because of his efforts, Barry has been named one of Connecticut's top youth volunteers of 2021 by the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, which identifies itself as “America’s largest youth recognition program based exclusively on volunteer service.”

The awards are given annually through a partnership between Prudential Financial and the National Association of Secondary School Principals to students in grades five through 12.

Barry was one of two Connecticut youths to receive the award. The other was Issabelle Fontaine, 13, of Bethel, who, according to Prudential, worked with a partner to collect more than 8,000 books and distribute them in laundromats, schools, daycare centers and food distribution sites.

As state honorees, the teens each will receive a $2,500 scholarship, a silver medallion and an invitation to the program’s virtual national recognition celebration in April, where 10 of the 102 state honorees will be named America’s top youth volunteers of the year.

Those 10 national honorees will earn an additional $5,000 scholarship, a gold medallion, a crystal trophy for their nominating organization and a $5,000 grant for a nonprofit charitable organization of their choice.

Meanwhile, Barry said, he continues to grow his own charitable ventures, which include not just book donation but also raising enough money to help fund a library and a pig farm in a small community in Uganda.

All of this, he said, began with his own love of reading.

“I love that magical feeling of falling into the world of reading,” Barry said. “There are so many children who have never even read a book before — never even held a book before.”

He said he didn’t set out to create a massive charitable effort, but he’s proud of what’s been accomplished.

“The part that stands out the most to me is how important it is to start small,” Barry said.