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Turning pages in India

The old man wore tattered clothing and wanted books. But Rosemarie Briggs had nothing left to give. She was putting the finishing touches on a new library in Bir, a remote village in Northern India.

The old man wore tattered clothing and wanted books.

But Rosemarie Briggs had nothing left to give.

She was putting the finishing touches on a new library in Bir, a remote village in Northern India.

Books are so rare there that Briggs had to teach the school’s principal how to properly stack them on the shelves. And there was a lot of stacking to do after Briggs arrived - she’d brought about 3,000 books to the village.

“It was tons and tons of work,” said Rosemarie. “It was exhausting and exciting and exhilarating all at the same time.”

It was the sixth and biggest library she and her mother Liesel had established in villages across India and Nepal.

The task was done.

And that’s when the old man appeared, looking for books for his village in the mountains.

Rosemarie exhaled deeply.

She explained that they had, literally, just used up all of their money.

More than $5,000 went into that one library, said Liesel.

“The man was very sweet and he sort of nodded his head ‘OK,’ and then turned to go,” said Rosemarie.

But she couldn’t let him leave.

She asked his name and where he was from.

His village is called Bharabangal.

The only way to get there is when the mountain pass melts, unveiling a small donkey trail.

It takes anywhere from three to five days to walk.

The man had come to speak with her.

“When somebody comes to you like that…” she said, raising her eyebrows and lifting her palms. “We’ve figured things out and we’re going to build a library there.”

That is what the mother and daughter duo do.

They answer people who ask them for books. But they are careful about it too, or the libraries won’t last, they say.

They have a long list of criteria, including a permanent person who will act as the librarian, and they give a lot of education, along with the books, about how to keep a library.

They also require a sturdy building in the village for the books.

The man from Bharabangal is using his life savings to build the concrete library in his community. He told Rosemarie he doesn’t want his grandchildren to have to walk as far as he did to learn how to read.

The Briggs call what they do Hands of Hope, Books and Basics for Kids in India and Nepal.

The small organization also sponsors a select number of orphans so they can continue to go to school.

It helps boost the meagre pay for school teachers and helps with food, clothing and blankets when it can.

The two women have been doing it since 2007, and they do it all on their own.

“It’s really hard, but we love it,” said Rosemarie.

“It’s our passion,” added Liesel.

“And how can you say no to somebody,” said Rosemarie, the former Yukon teacher. “But it’s more than just not being able to say no, it’s also…”

“I keep thinking I have a precious life and I’d like to do the best, positive things with it,” Liesel said.

The two women talk at the same, and over one another, but never really seem to interrupt each other. It sounds more like a layering of like-minded and politely added thoughts.

“We can chose to do anything with our life and we have happened to bump into people who really need some help, and we’re able to give a little bit of help,” said Rosemarie. “We’re not a big organization, we don’t do huge things, but we can do a little bit.”

The biggest cost is the airplane tickets.

The women always pay for those themselves.

To do so, they fundraise, Rosemarie will take a few contracts supply teaching, Liesel dedicates a portion of the profits from her and her husband’s cabin rental business and they also connect western sponsors with those in India and Nepal.

Most of the support base comes from the Yukon, but they have had people contact them from all over - from Vancouver to Abu Dhabi, they said.

Rosemarie shrugs when she explains that she lives on her savings, staying with her parents when she is in Whitehorse, and with friends when she is overseas.

Liesel boasts of her garden and greenhouse, which provide much of the family’s groceries.

And she laughs when she mentions how old her computer is and how good she is at thrift shopping.

“We just prioritize what we want to do with our money,” said Liesel.

“If you have something that you feel very passionate about doing, then you don’t have huge needs for fancy clothes or cars. You’re happy and fulfilled with what you’re doing so your needs are low,” said Rosemarie.

“Plus, people here are so generous and when they see that you are trying to help people and you’re using your own money, they come forward and want to help.”

That is the exact reason why Katya McQueen, owner of the Midnight Sun Coffee Roasters, offered to make a Hands of Hope blend.

“There’s no religious affiliation to what they’re doing, which is really impressive to me, that they’re spending their own money to get over there - there’s no one backing them,” said McQueen. “I just find it pretty amazing that these two ladies have managed to do what they have. It shows me what people are capable of when they put their heads together.”

The local coffee company sponsors many different causes, mainly within the local community, said McQueen.

But when she heard about the Briggs’ work, it was a no-brainer, she said.

“It’s too good not to get behind,” she said. “It makes me feel pretty good to know that Midnight Sun can do that from across the globe.”

Plus, the Hands of Hope blend is a good one, McQueen added.

An equal mix of organic Sumatra and organic dark French.

“It’s pretty full bodied and pretty rich,” said McQueen. “It’s a good blend in itself and it was a lot of fun to come up with it.”

The original blend can only be bought in $9.95, half-pound bags.

Fifty per cent of every sale goes directly to Hands of Hope.

Since it was launched last year, McQueen guesses they have raised about $1,000.

“I love what they do, I love what they’re both up to, I love their non-political but excellent way of doing it,” she said. “It was pretty easy for me to say, ‘Hey let’s do something one better then just handing over cash.’ It’s a way for the community to continue to partake in the Hands of Hope sponsorship and it’s easy for us.”

Keeping up the work they do appears as a no-brainer for the Briggs’ as well.

“Of course I’ve had to make choices,” said Rosemarie, noting that she wouldn’t even know how to sustain a relationship while continuing Hands of Hope.

Liesel noted how lucky she is to have “an amazing, supportive and patient” husband. (They will celebrate their 41st anniversary next month.)

“But I feel so happy and so fulfilled,” said Rosemarie. “I don’t feel like I am lacking anything.”

Again she mentions the older man who walked from Bharabangal to ask her for books.

“I know the next time I see him, I’m going to look at him and I’m going to be able to say, ‘Here’s some books, let’s take your donkeys and let’s go.’”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at