The right book in the right hands has the power to heal, to uplift, to transform.
Imagine, then, the power of more than 3,000 books sent to members of our society who some might unfairly see as beyond saving.
For his Eagle Scout service project, Austin Niec collected books to send to a correctional facility in Nashville. With his “Books for Inmates” project, Austin initially hoped to collect 300 paperback books to donate to incarcerated men and women.
In the end, he delivered 3,032 books. He sent histories and mysteries, autobiographies and Westerns, educational texts and spiritual guides — to name only a few.
“If they can read one of these books and learn a new trade,” Austin says, “or get lost in a story and create a vision of something nice in their head, then this project was worth it.”
Officials in the BSA’s Middle Tennessee Council say the project, completed in 2019 before the pandemic, was the first of its kind in their council. In recognition of Austin’s efforts, the council named him one of its 2019 Scouts of the Year at a ceremony held in March 2020.
“I hope it’s not boastful to say I am proud of myself, but I am,” Austin says. “Scouting gives us the lessons to turn a good deed, and I am thankful this project was one of those good deeds.”
Why he did it
Inside the front cover of every book donated, Austin and his helpers placed a sticker that contains the Scout Law and Austin’s name.
The idea behind the sticker, Austin says, is that if even one incarcerated person reads the Scout Law and considers how those 12 points might be incorporated into their own lives, the extra effort behind the stickers will have been worth it.
But the books themselves were the real focus.
When Austin first joined Scouts BSA, his Scoutmaster asked each Scout to bring in a few books to donate to the Davidson County Sheriff’s office, where the Scoutmaster worked.
Through that effort, Austin learned about the average life of a book behind bars (three readings), the types of books that aren’t allowed (hardbacks, for example) and the importance of libraries inside a jail.
“It just stuck with me,” he says. “Books help inmates feel connected to the outside world, they help to keep their mind sharp, help with spiritual healing and they calm emotions.”
The educational and transformative power of books, Austin says, can help inmates stay out of prison after they’re released. In addition to fighting recidivism, the project would also fight waste. Each paperback collected for Austin’s “Books for Inmates” drive stayed out of a landfill.
How he did it
After receiving approval from his council and leaders to go ahead with the project, Austin asked a local coffee shop (Caliber Coffee in Donelson, Tenn.) whether he could have a collection day there.
They said yes, and Austin set up a box to collect books in case anyone wanted to drop some off early. Austin and his team of volunteers made posters to hang at Caliber Coffee and flyers to put in teachers’ mailboxes at Austin’s school. He set up a collection box at the school, too.
To promote the project, Austin posted on Facebook and Instagram and asked Caliber Coffee to do the same. Before long, he heard from some local TV news stations and his local newspaper.
Austin appeared on the local Fox and ABC affiliates, and “from this promotion, it just went crazy,” he says. In the first three days of having the collection box at Caliber Coffee, Austin reached his goal of 300 books.
The collection day event he had been planning was still two weeks away, but instead of closing it up and calling his Eagle project complete, Austin kept going. He visited the boxes at Caliber Coffee and the school daily to collect the newest donations.
“By the time we got to the actual collection day, we had almost 2,000 books in my dining room and hallway and family room,” he says. “They were everywhere.”
On the official collection day, Austin and his volunteers set up at Caliber Coffee from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. The coffee shop offered anyone who brought a book a free drink from a special menu.
When it was all over, Austin and his team had collected another 1,500 books, bringing their grand total to more than 3,300.
But they still weren’t done. All 3,300 books were taken to Troop 275’s meeting room to be separated and sorted by genre. Some books could not be donated — hardbacks, books with CDs or books in poor condition. Sorting and reboxing took another five hours.
Finally, the big day arrived. Austin delivered the 3,032-book donation to Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall.
What he learned
Like anyone who has completed an Eagle project, Austin understood that you can’t do it alone.
“I learned that I have a great community of people around me,” he says. “Of course, my parents and troop would help me, but the Nashville community as a whole came out to support my project.”
Austin says the project strengthened his skills in leadership, planning, organization and communication. He was reminded that it’s OK to ask for help.
And though he did not meet the direct beneficiaries of his efforts — the incarcerated men and women inside the prison — he hopes they get a lot of use out of the books.
“They are human beings,” Austin says. “I don’t know their stories — why they are incarcerated, what brought them to the decision to do whatever it is they did — but whether someone is in jail, or going to school or work, or just born or turning 100 years old, everyone deserves a chance to learn and grow.”
‘We could all be just a bit kinder’
Looking back on his time in the program, Austin believes in the power of Scouting to “bring boys and girls together to grow and help others,” he says.
“The skills we learn in Scouting are true life skills that are not taught in school as much anymore,” he says.
Austin’s project proves one more reason we need Scouting: it helps young people develop a passion for helping others.
Says Austin: “I think we could all be just a bit kinder in the world.”