Anyone who reads knows the power of books to transport you to places beyond your current situation. That’s why The Footpath Library is such an incredible charity. Founded by Sarah Garnett in 2003, the Library distributes thousands of free books every year in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth to people experiencing homelessness.
Unlike many other charities, which focus upon addressing people’s immediate physical needs, The Footpath Library offers a different kind of escape. “I mean, we can’t get them all beds, or fix people’s mental health issues,” says Sarah, “but a story goes a long way towards taking their minds off a really terrible day”.
This October marks the 20th anniversary of The Footpath Library – an impressive milestone for any small charity. Sarah attributes much of its success to the passion and commitment of its volunteers, many of whom have been turning up to help for years. “I have some volunteers who started the same day I have gave away that first book, you know? They’re people who just understand what we do. Once we have volunteers, they stay with us.
“I think what The Footpath Library does is provide a real opportunity for social connection for people who feel invisible. And when you volunteer, you have these deep conversations, the type you don’t usually have, and you go away feeling kind of nourished. A book is a means of forming that connection.”
For you, what was the moment that changed everything?
“I was working as a television producer and raising my boys when one of my close friends – the son of a friend of mine – died suddenly. The grief was overwhelming; his death felt so unnecessary. As a way of taking my mind off it, another friend suggested I volunteer at a food truck.
A few weeks later I was waiting for everyone to arrive [at the truck] when I noticed a man sitting on the pavement, under the only light, reading a sci-fi book by Eric Van Lustbader. He was surrounded by all these plastic bags full of his clothes and it was clear he was a rough sleeper. I went over to chat with him and initially I thought he was drunk, before realising that he didn’t talk to anyone in order to keep himself safe, and had just completely lost the art of conversation.
When you volunteer, you have these deep conversations, the type you don’t usually have
I started bringing him books from my husband’s collection. Then one night, I brought a couple of boxes to see if anyone else wanted books. There were about 50 guys waiting in the food queue, so I just put the books out on the pavement, and that’s where it began.”
Did you ever imagine you’d run a charity?
“Not in my wildest dreams!”
When did you realise it would be a success?
“Oh, I still think sometimes that it should be more successful – have I achieved enough in 20 years?! When I consider that we have volunteers who have been with us for more than 15 years, pro bono supporters who have been our partners since 2007, and this is our 20th year, that’s when I realise The Footpath Library is a successful small not-for-profit!”
What’s the biggest misconception that people hold about homeless people?
“When we were kids, my mother taught us that people experiencing homelessness were lazy because they slept during the day. But one of the first things I found out [through volunteering] was that people walk around at night and sleep during the day, because it’s not safe to sleep in the park at night – you get bashed, you get stuff stolen. So you stay awake at night, going to places that have lights like McDonalds, and during the day you sleep.”
Is there one interaction that has made it all worthwhile?
“There have been lots of conversations over the years, with people I have met at our outreach sites, which have left me thinking, “Yes, this is what matters!” Something as small as, “You are the only people I have spoken to this week,” or, “Reading this book stopped me doing something bad today.” Even just the smiles we get from people who pick up a new book and realise they can keep it.”
Looking back, what was the smartest thing you did while launching and building The Footpath Library? And what have you learned for next time?!
“Having a smart, hands-on board of people who really believe in what we do, and want to make a difference, is essential in the running of a small charity. I’ve learned not to be afraid of saying no to people! And Ronnie Khan from OzHarvest advised me years ago to concentrate on doing one thing really well, that success wasn’t about how big you are.”
When you’re not running TFL, what do you love doing?
“Spending time on our acreage on the NSW central coast, looking after our bush and chickens; running our kelpie on the beach; playing with our grandsons and enjoying time with my family.”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“It’s from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Finish this sentence: Nothing feels better than…
“Falling so far into a book that you never want it to end.”