A call to action by a former Minnesota senator has inundated a Leech Lake tribal school with donations.

Last month, Al Franken, the former U.S. senator, asked the internet to donate books and money to Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School’s secondary school library. By May 3, just weeks after an online GoFundMe campaign was created for the school, they had received about 1,800 packages of books, plus $75,000 via the campaign, which Franken highlighted on his website. 

According to a Duluth News Tribune article highlighting the campaign earlier this month, conditions at the school’s building for secondary students were “notoriously shoddy,” and Minnesota lawmakers such as Franken pushed for years to secure federal money to replace it. The new building, which opened at the beginning of this school year, didn’t have many books in its library or enough shelves to store them on, which meant boxes and boxes of books sat quietly in a storage room this year.

“When I first toured the old school years ago, I was particularly struck with the school’s library -- if you could call it that. It was in a room the size of a closet and contained two small bookcases,” Franken, who resigned in 2017 amid a series of sexual misconduct allegations, wrote on his website. 

On paper, the school already had about 17,000 books, according to Media Specialist Laurie Jo Villwock, but most were for younger students and stored in the school’s K-6 library. 

Last year, administrators at the school paid for about 4,000 new books with about $62,000 in grant money, most of which came from the Bureau of Indian Education. In his plea, Franken also urged tribes from across the country to send books about their culture and heritage to Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, which resulted in nearly 100 more donations to the school. A DonorsChoose fundraiser was also established, and resulted in $600 worth of donations as well, a request Villwock said was fulfilled in two to three days. However, the former senator’s call to action is the highest profile effort to fill the high school’s library to date.

“When I arrived at the school two years ago, I found six large boxes of books that had been donated thanks to Al,” explained Villwock. “When I thanked him at our new school’s dedication, he was already describing new ways we could obtain books. I never dreamed he would connect later and help create numerous paths to both books and needed funding. I feel as though I have followed him down the rabbit hole, and I’m excited for the new opportunities this will bring our students.”

For weeks now, since the campaign began in April via Franken’s website, Facebook, Twitter and email, boxes upon boxes of books and donations have poured into the school. 

“Our initial goal was $20,000 and Al’s people thought we would end up with $40,000. Right now, we are at over $81,600,” said Villwock of the donations. 

At last count, she continued, the school has also received around 4,000 books from an Amazon Wish List, and books are still being purchased.  

“We have also received books from other bookstores, some as far away as the UK, books from people’s private libraries and book drives held on our behalf,” Villwock continued, adding that she is still “fairly busy with the hundreds of emails” she receives. “Thankfully, the flow is down to about 10 a day.”

Some people are offering to buy books for the school, she explained; some want to send the students books they already own, and several groups have offered to hold book drives on the school’s behalf. They’ve also received books from a Girl Scout troop, several people from the twin cities have personally delivered books, and native author Joseph Bruchac has donated both money and books.

“Many of our students move around often; it is difficult for their families to buy books or for the students to keep track of what they own. So if they want to read something, I would like the school to be one of the best places for them to find it,” Villwock said of the growing library collection.

Through the donations, she hopes to provide students with books in three areas: History and current issues of the native people, mainstream non-fiction, and both native and mainstream fiction.  

“I also hope to provide books for the needs of the surrounding communities, so I want to include adult books and books for young families,” she continued.

As a result of the call to action, the school has also received several offers for other important items, Villwock said.  

“We have some devices coming for students to sit in that are supposed to help them calm down, a man who knew author Paul Goble has offered to bring musicians and perform a work based on one of Paul’s books (they performed it at Lincoln Center), and someone has offered to help us design an interactive library in the elementary school. So it will take some time to sort through all the offers and decide which to follow up on,” she continued.

And the thousands of dollars pouring into the GoFundMe campaign won’t go entirely to literature, explained Villwock. Some of the money will be used for purchasing cabinets for the library office, installing an interactive whiteboard in the elementary library for teaching use, and more, depending on other ideas from school staff. Some of the ideas already proposed include expanding classroom libraries and classroom sets of books, adding technology for the elementary classes, and video editing programs. Currently, Villwock said she is focusing on purchasing native books for the high school teachers to use as classroom sets.

“I was not expecting anything nearly as grand as what we have been given,” said Villwock of the thousands of donations. “I am so grateful to Al Franken and his team, especially Will Howell, who has been working with me through all three projects. None of us had any clue about what would happen, but the support from the public has been tremendous.”

Villwock said she would like to give a huge amount of credit to her library aide, Amy Gosswiller.  

“Since I am actually located in the elementary library, Amy has been in charge of opening and sorting all of the books,” Villwock explained. Students from both the high school and the elementary school have also been providing a lot of help as the donations continue to arrive. High schoolers come in during lunch, before and after school, and even get out of class to go open boxes, Villwock explained, and teachers in both the elementary and high schools have been bringing their classes in to help open and sort books.

“The students are very excited to see all of the books. Even if they have never heard of the book, they still like to hold it up and show it to everyone there,” she continued.

Villwock said that the school is working with Amazon to see if they can return some of the books they have received excessive donations of, such as come classics like “Moby Dick” and “1984.” The school has received upwards of 100 copies of the former. 

“Depending on what we end up with, I would like to see any extra books we cannot return donated to other facilities on the Leech Lake Reservation such as the homeless shelter and Head Start,” Villwock said.

To donate to the GoFundMe campaign, visit https://www.gofundme.com/help-the-circle-of-knowledge-continue. To see the school’s Amazon wish list, visit https://www.amazon.com/hz/wishlist/ls/1M002ZRMM0UBF?ref_=wl_share. Villwock said she will keep adding to the Amazon list as several donors have requested that she keep it going so they can donate again later in the year.  

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