By SARAH CHAIN
Daily Record/Sunday News
Tucked away in an upstairs bedroom, Kathy Weigel sits at a table stacked with paperbacks: nonfiction war stories, western novels, science fiction, fantasy and the rare romance novel. And, always, James Patterson.
“Every list that comes from anybody has James Patterson on it,” the 58-year-old Manchester Township resident said with a laugh.
Weigel labels the books with an “Operation Paperback” sticker that includes the nonprofit’s web address, sorts the books by genre and packs them 40 or 45 at a time into a box. She’s spent more than a decade’s worth of days this way, sending books through Operation Paperback, a nonprofit that distributes gently used paperbacks to military members and families.
On April 13, Weigel sent the box that held her 100,000th book.
Her involvement began shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, with a support group of 16 parents whose children were serving in the military.
“One day, since I’m a reader, I said, ‘How about we start sending books to the troops,’” Weigel said.
When she got in touch with local bookstores seeking books, one owner told her about York Township resident Dan Bowers, who had started Operation Paperback in 1999.
Bowers’ son-in-law was stationed overseas in Kuwait without any recreational materials, so military wives got together to send a few items: Nerf balls, horseshoes and baseball bats, Bowers said.
“I suggested we send books,” Bowers said. “Because everyone has a garage full of books they’re planning to sell at a yard sale ‘some day.’”
From there, Operation Paperback was born. The organization matches military members seeking specific genres or authors with volunteers who have access to those materials.
Although Weigel’s support group stopped meeting in 2003, she continued to send books through Operation Paperback, relying on help from her husband, Dave, her mother and two friends.
“I have a little network built up here,” Weigel said.
The books she sends come from area used bookstores, including Irvin’s Books in West Manchester Township and Recycled Reader Used Bookstore in York, that might end up with 10 copies of the same title. Neighbors or community members and used book sales are also good sources, Weigel said. Some libraries will call in advance and allow Weigel to peruse the leftovers a few hours before a sale ends.
“I get books from here, there, everywhere,” Weigel said. “I’m a book junkie, and they just gravitate to my door.”
She hasn’t let any setbacks stop her, either.
In June 2012, Weigel had back surgery to alleviate pressure from a ruptured disc. Two weeks after her surgery, Weigel could sit up.
“I just said to Dave, ‘I have to work on the books,’” Weigel said. “‘All you gotta do is sit them on the table here for me and I can label for 15 minutes.’”
Irvin’s and Recycled Reader both collect postage funds for Weigel, and she also receives a monthly donation from the Knights of Columbus.
“When I need postage funds, it seems to come,” Weigel said. “I’ll be at the post office and be standing there and someone will come up and give me money. Even some of the postal workers.”
“Kathy has been the most successful person I ever knew collecting money to pay for postage,” Bowers said.
She’s also the only individual volunteer who has sent more than 100,000 books — 100,165, to be exact, about 5 percent of the organization’s 1,830,724 books sent as of May 2.
When Operation Paperback began, it shipped solely to military deployed overseas. But as the United States reduces the number of overseas servicemen and women, the nonprofit has responded by shipping books to stateside veterans’ hospitals and families of deployed troops. Weigel’s 100,000th book was in a shipment to a veterans’ hospital in Detroit.
Over the years, Weigel has received a slew of thank-you cards and other mail from soldiers who’ve received her packages — enough to fill five scrapbooks.
But she doesn’t expect them.
“I just do what I do,” she said. “I call myself a grunt worker. I just love books, and I love my country, and I wanted to do something. … As a military mom, I know what they go through.”
As she neared the 100,000 mark, Weigel reviewed her records and counted how many books she’d sent each year. But Weigel said she never had a number she was trying to reach.
“I just kept sending and sending, and it just added up,” she said. “I’m going to retire one of these days. When, I don’t know.”
To get involved
To volunteer, visit www.operationpaperback.org to register and log in. Operation Paperback will match volunteers with addresses of deployed troops, veterans or military families who have requested shipments. The volunteer is responsible for all costs to acquire and ship the books.
The nonprofit also accepts monetary donations through the website, or via mail at Operation Paperback, P.O. Box 347, Dunstable, MA 01827.