Making a Difference, One Project, One Book at a Time

Dave & Virginia Marken next to their Little Free Library

Dave & Virginia Marken next to their Little Free Library

When Dave and Virginia Marken were looking to retire, they decided to move from the Bay Area to Lodi. They’d spent most of their lives in the Bay, but they were ready for a change of pace. Virginia’s mother was from Lodi so they already knew they loved the community, and decided to relocate to livable, lovable Lodi. They found a fixer upper in the Heritage District, a really beautiful, charming home with a lot of history and decided that was the home for them. When they landed on their house, they got some push back from friends in Lodi because of its location in the Heritage District, but that didn’t bother Dave and Virginia. If anything, hearing the push back from others seems to have encouraged the Markens to take action to change people’s perception about the Heritage District. Since they’ve moved in, they’ve already taken a lot strides to support their community. They’ve done a lot of work on their home, and have gotten involved with several groups, including a program through the City of Lodi and the Lodi Chamber called ABCD Love Your Block. For the 2018 year, ABCD handed out eight grants to groups in Lodi looking to improve the Heritage District (read more about the ABCD grants here). Dave and Virginia applied and won a grant to build a Little Free Library outside of their new home. I had the joy of meeting with Dave and Virginia right before the Little Free Library had its grand opening, and we got to chat about why they were inspired to take on this venture.

"So where can you start? What can you do? We put our money where our mouth was and said let's make it happen."

Education is very important to the Markens. Both were the first in their families to pursue a higher education, and they both went far. Virginia is an anesthetist and Dave was school superintendent. Education made a big impact on their lives and they’re paying it forward by supporting other kids in education. Raising kids to be strong readers is an important foundation for a promising education. So when Virginia saw a Little Free Library for the first time, she immediately saw how having their own Little Free Library had the potential to support both their work in the Heritage District, and their drive to encourage kids in education.  “I was out visiting my son who lives in Minnesota and I saw a Little Free Library and I was like, ‘What’s that?’ I had never seen one in San Francisco. In San Francisco there’s a library in every neighborhood where there isn’t here (in Lodi). I called Dave and told him about it. ‘Hey, there’s this thing called a Little Free Library. Isn’t that cool? We have all this property now, right? And we see kids walking around all the time. Can we do that? We’re by schools and a preschool. Can we build a Little Free Library?’ So where can you start? What can you do? We put our money where our mouth was and said let’s make it happen.” It just made sense.

“You go okay. You take a deep breath and say we can’t do everything, but what can we do?”

Over the course of our chat, Dave and Virginia kept coming back to the one thing at a time philosophy. Things can feel really overwhelming sometimes, especially if you’re looking to improve a huge, multi dimensional idea like education. Being able to step back and say what is one thing can I do to make a difference is how the Markens are able to make a change, one house, one Little Free Library at a time. “We believe very strongly, it’s one student at a time. You can’t wave a wand and change a community. But you can do it one house at a time. And I am out every day, picking up every scrap of litter, I sweep, I do everything. And then what happens is more people do it.” Mark explained. “It’s that one house, one block, one community at a time. It’s that one student, one class, one school at a time.” “It’s that be the change.” agreed Virginia. Mark continued, “You go okay. You take a deep breath and say we can’t do everything, but what can we do?” Building the Little Free Library outside of their home was one step the Markens took in encouraging education by making books more accessible to the kids passing by each day. If you’re looking at a problem, thinking “What can I do?” consider the one thing at a time approach. If you’re worried about education, for example, consider something achievable you can do, like making books more accessible to kids, like with a Little Free Library.

"I just love that idea that a child feels, to give them that groundedness and that powerfulness about themselves. To let them know that they have that ability"

It’s fun to see what books are going inside a Little Free Library because it’s revealing of the library's owners. What messages do Markens think are the most important to send our kids? I asked and Dave and Virginia their two must reads for kids and I couldn’t agree more with their recommendations. For Dave it was Dr. Seuss’s Oh The Places You’ll Go. “Kids need to see that their current existence, whatever it is, they always need to reach for something. Whether the live in a really, really wonderful house with a big pool and whatever or they live in a one bedroom with their mom and three siblings. That the places they can go are limitless. And frankly education is really the key to that. I mean it just is. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but the reverse can guarantee that you won't have those opportunities. It’s maybe not a blank check, but if you don’t have it, the competition is so unbelievably difficult that you’re on the outside looking in.” Virginia’s must read was another classic, A Wrinkle in Time. “What it says is that as a child, I have power and I can affect my world if I am bold. And that is both us, because we both went to college and did things and excelled in school and excelled in our lives without the support of our parents. Our parents had not experienced those things. It was outside of their understanding and their experiences, and I see this in so many kids. But we know first hand, you can still do it. I just love that idea that a child feels, to give them that groundedness and that powerfulness about themselves. To let them know that they have that ability.”

"Because it gets overwhelming and people sit back in the stand and do nothing. Do something. It’s okay. It’s actually even okay to fail.”

We covered so much great stuff during our chat, I absolutely recommend that if you see Dave or Virginia out front of their beautiful home across from the LOEL you stop and say hi and ask them about their library. They’re a wealth of information and positive energy, and happy to share their enthusiasm with neighbors. I wish I had room to include everything we talked about because they’re chalk full of motivation that makes you feel like you can take on anything.  On a final note, I asked them both to share with me the one thing they would change if they could change anything in the world. Virginia shared, “Perception. Because people perceive things a certain way and it’s either fear based or maybe it’s experienced but if we could change people’s perception. Because I’ve worked my whole career in surgery, I know it seems weird or odd, but the insides of people are all the same. We’re all the same. We just look a little different on the outside. But we’re basically all the same. If people would just realize the person sitting next to you at a restaurant or on a bus or at Starbucks whatever, they’re really basically the same. They’re trying to live their lives, to be happy, pursue  their goals, to have their family be safe. That we have so much more in common than we do not in common.” Dave wanted people to stop talking from the sidelines, and get more involved. Meet new people and learn about them. “Love Lodi was a great extension of that, people come out and meet new people to help out. People want to do that, they just need outlets and opportunities. And with things like Love Lodi, where we give them and enable them an opportunity, people want it. Look, over 1,100 people went to Love Lodi. People want that opportunity. Just do something to make some kind of a difference. Because it gets overwhelming and people sit back in the stands and do nothing. Do something. It’s okay. It’s actually even okay to fail.” “It is actually.” agreed Virginia. “To try and make a friend and it doesn’t work. To try to serve and backfires. It’s okay. It’s alright to do it. Just make the effort. It’s good for you. You’re doing something for someone else but it’s good for you.” Thank you so much to Dave and Virginia. Click here to learn how you can bring a Little Free Library to your neighborhood.

Takeaways from Dave & Virginia

1. You may not be able to do everything, but you can do something. If you want to make a change, find one project that you can do then do it!

2. Education is important, and reading is a key part of that. Inspiring kids to love reading opens up a whole new world for them.

3.  It's important to get off the sidelines and get involved. Even if you fail, you can learn something by trying.