Interview by Nicole Melanson ~
Sarah Garnett is Founder and Managing Director of The Footpath Library, a truly unique library that gives away books to homeless people in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. The Footpath Library gives away 2500 books a month via mobile services and libraries it installs and stocks in homeless shelters and refuges.
Sarah is an Australia Day Ambassador, a 2013 NSW Australian of the Year Local Hero finalist, and a recipient of the 2013 Courage to Care Local Hero Award. She was also the subject of an episode of Channel 9’s program Random Acts of Kindness. Prior to her role as MD of The Footpath Library, Sarah had a successful career as a corporate communications and documentary producer.
HOW DID YOU GET STARTED?
I was a video producer for 20 years before a chance meeting took me in another direction. I met a homeless man one night 12 years ago when I noticed him reading a book under a streetlight in Sydney’s CBD and started a conversation about reading. I brought him books each week and soon was taking in 40-50 books every Tuesday night to a bunch of regulars who would meet me at one of the mobile food vans in the city.
WHAT IS YOUR LATEST OR CURRENT PROJECT?
The Footpath Library is running the Epic! Short Story Competition for students until the end of first term 2015. The theme is “Home is….” and the aim of the competition, like The Footpath Library, is to raise awareness about homelessness and encourage literacy. We are also developing a literacy program for our hostel clients where we will train volunteers to visit hostels to have one on one with their customers to read the newspaper, help fill in forms, read to them, or assist with reading – anything that engages them with literature.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK ENVIRONMENT LIKE?
I have a home office with French doors leading out to my garden so it’s very peaceful. My kelpie/blue cattle dog, Tully, sits under my desk or lies out on the paving next to the fish pond. I have two beaches within walking distance so it’s easy to get distracted, but also to take time out when I need some fresh air. When I go in to our mobile library service on Tuesday nights it’s very different – noisy, sometimes cold and wet, hectic and sometimes challenging, but I always come home with a smile on my face.
WHEN DO YOU WORK? WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
I start working after I’ve taken Tully to the dog beach with my partner. Some days are just sitting on my computer or the phone talking to my Ops Manager, the Chair of our Board, or sponsors, answering emails and enquiries, responding to media interviews etc. I also spend a lot of time going to meetings with other not-for-profit organisations, sponsors, hostel clients, publishers and so on. I have to restock the van with books for the CBD mobile service so a visit to one of our warehouses is usually on the cards once a week or so. I enjoy seeing what books have been donated and choosing great fiction and nonfiction for our homeless customers.
WHAT IS YOUR WORK PROCESS?
I’m highly organised (as most Producers are!) and like structure so I tend to plan my week well ahead and make lots of lists! I’m a multi-tasker and can get a lot done in one day. This enables me to have plenty of time to take the dog to the beach, go for walks, enjoy my garden and spend time with my partner and friends.
WHAT IS THE HARDEST PART OF WHAT YOU DO?
The most difficult part of my job is getting funding for The Footpath Library. It’s just so competitive out there but we can’t survive without dollars. Getting book donations is never an issue – every publisher in Australia gives us new books and the general public fills in the gaps.
WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU HAD KNOWN WHEN YOU STARTED?
I’m glad I didn’t know a lot of what I know now or I may have been too daunted to register The Footpath Library as a charity.
I would like to have had previous board experience, met other CEOs of NFPs to get advice from, and gained a degree in anthropology (which I’m doing right now!)
WHAT IS YOUR VISION?
My vision for The Footpath Library is to enrich the lives of homeless people, encourage literacy, and raise awareness of homelessness.
I also want to finish my Anthropology degree and one day write a book about my journey over the last 13 years.
WHO ARE YOUR FAVORITE FEMALE AUTHORS?
Rachel Joyce, Joanna Rakoff, Sofie Laguna, Evie Wyld, Karen Joy Fowler
WHO WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE INTERVIEWED ON WORDMOTHERS NEXT?
Thank you, Sarah Garnett!
— Nicole Melanson
* Author photo by Banjo McLachlan
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