A family stands next to their little library. Courtesy photo.

At the end of the powerful veterans’ ensemble play, “The Telling Project: San Antonio,” performed last year at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, Gold Star wife Donna Engeman muses about her fallen soldier husband, John. She expresses her hope that in 150 years, after we are all gone, that people will remember his name, and what a kind and loving husband, soldier, and father he was. “I live in fear that America won’t remember his name,” she said, echoing a sentiment felt by so many others who have lost family members to wars over time.

Marines at dedication ceremony Friday at Sky Harbour Elementary. Courtesy photo.
Marines at dedication ceremony Friday at Sky Harbour Elementary. Courtesy photo.

Public television station KLRN sponsored “The Telling Project,” and Engeman’s last lines kept KLRN COO Julie Coan up at night. She wondered what could be done to honor Engeman’s request, and others like her.

What came to mind was “Little Free Libraries,” a grass-roots project that’s gone from coast to coast, but with a change in emphasis, to honor local service members who had died in wars from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, by placing the tiny libraries in communities on San Antonio’s Southside. Not only are a majority of families living in the Southside low-income and have access to few libraries or bookstores – but it’s also home to more service members who have died in service to our country than any other part of the city.

Maricella Borroel is KLRN’s education director, and she grew up on the Southside. Almost immediately, she took this project to heart, ultimately finding the names of about 200 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines who had died in war. She was able to enlist her mother Becky’s help, who combed library’s genealogy departments, the Internet, and made contact with Survivors Outreach Services to find more information about the fallen service members.

“It is definitely a personal project,” Borroel said. “From not knowing who the fallen were, to seeing their names, at times finding articles about them and then at other times their obituary notices. They came to life through the stories we found; and eventually through the family members we found, connected with, and later met.”

Donna Engeman with little library at Sky Harbour Elementary. Courtesy photo.
Donna Engeman with little library at Sky Harbour Elementary. Courtesy photo.

Early on, Bruce Kates, KLRN’s producer for Texas Week with Rick Casey and many other shows, suggested adding a QR code onto each little library as it was installed, so that community members could scan the code with their smartphones and learn more about the service member who the library was honoring.

The goals of the “Operation Never-Ending Stories” project were simple: Engage veterans and the community; remember the fallen and their families; and foster a love of reading in the communities where the libraries are placed by providing ready access to books.

A little library on the South Side's first reader. Courtesy photo.
The first reader at the little library on the Southside. Courtesy photo.

This month, KLRN is unveiling five “little libraries” to honor six service members, total. QR codes bring up short films the station produced about the lives of these fallen G.I.’s. (A playlist of all five short films is available on YouTube, in KLRN’s channel, here.) Starting this week, the libraries were dedicated in five school districts – Edgewood ISD, San Antonio ISD, Harlandale ISD, South San Antonio ISD and Southwest ISD – which according to the station will “provide a home for the libraries and care for them after the dedication ceremonies” run throughout May.

KLRN partnered with veterans and volunteers from the Zachry Group and the San Antonio Woodworkers Guild (SAWG) to build, decorate and install the libraries. Zachry employees hosted a book drive which surpassed its goal of 1,000 books by collecting 1,500 for the little libraries.

Fred, Maricella and Becky Borroel. Courtesy photo.
Fred, Maricella and Becky Borroel. Courtesy photo.

Coan says family members were touched when they learned of the project’s intention to honor their loved ones. Surprisingly, one person asked how much it would cost to have this honor – to which Coan replied that it was free, and an honor to recognize their sacrifice.

Johnny Castillo lost his younger brother, Manuel Angel Castillo, an Army private in Vietnam. “It makes me feel good to know my little brother is going to be immortalized in this way,” he said about the library installed near Sky Harbour Elementary School, where the dedication ceremony was held Friday morning.

“It’s important we remember the fallen, not just around Memorial Day, but all year long,” Coan said, “Operation Never-Ending Stories is a way to honor their sacrifices, keep their stories alive and bring books into a community where the last bookstore closed in 2009.”

YouTube video

“This is an intense and emotional project that allowed us to honor people who made the ultimate sacrifice,” Borroel said. “It’s important that their stories are known.”

Not a few people involved in the combined labor of love noted how it helped make the service members’ sacrifice real. “It really changed the way we think when we see a service member — and when we hear of a fallen service member,” Borroel said.

With the 1,500 books collected from Zachry’s book drive, Borroel said KLRN created book plates “and dedicated each book from our collection to one of the 200 (fallen service members) we have already found. Volunteers hand-wrote the G.I.’s names onto the 1,500+ bookplates. That’s how personal this is,” she said.

KLRN's Veteran Voices series. Courtesy photo.
KLRN’s Veteran Voices series. Courtesy photo.

Boerrol attended Hoelscher Elementary School, before heading east to prestigious college preparatory school Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and then on to Boston University.

She says this project is “an opportunity to celebrate the lives of people from our neighborhoods who are our fallen heroes. It gives us the tools to share their stories so that they are never forgotten. It has been an opportunity to share the gift of literature — beloved characters and imaginary worlds — where we can learn a bit more through books and it will shape us to be brighter, more informed individuals.”

The station is encouraging people to thank service members by taking a picture of themselves with a book from one of the little free libraries, and sharing it on social media using the hashtag #OpNES.

The schedule for dedicating the remaining #OpNES Little Free Libraries is as follows:

  • Friday, May 22 at 10 a.m. at Five Palms Elementary, 7138 Five Palms Drive, honoring Juan Macias Jimenez.
  • (POSTPONED TIL EARLY JUNE) Winston Elementary, 2525 S. General McMullen, honoring Jorge Villarreal, Jr..

Leal Middle School hosts a library honoring Roger P. Peña, Jr. and Gene Ramirez; Sky Harbour Elementary hosts another honoring Manuel Angel Castillo.

*Featured/top image: A family stands next to their little library. Courtesy photo. 

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San Antonio’s Veterans’ Voices: Compelling Stories

Veterans Day: More Than a Day Off Work and a Retail Sale

A Veteran’s Continuing Journey Back

Veterans Share Their Stories on Stage at the Tobin

Lily Casura, MSW, is the Director of Equity and Impact at YWCA San Antonio. An independent researcher as well as a current graduate student in applied demography at UTSA, she co-authored the "Status of...