‘Fencebook’ becomes a neighbourhood hub for families

A shy foray by Good Samaritan Oblate Helen Smith into cheering up those in her neighbourhood during the COVID-19 lockdown period by creating a ‘Fencebook’ community library is bringing joy.

Helen, who lives in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges, said the idea to attach a favourite children’s story to her front fence sprang from her observation of some of the tensions being experienced by families when they couldn’t get out and about to take part in their normal activities.

“During COVID-19, I was watching the many people who use my street as a walking track,” she said. “I saw lots of families, dads with kids doing unfamiliar things and lots of adults just getting out of the house.

“I heard grumpy exchanges and kids being chastised and tired parents sounding worn out. I decided to do something about it.”

Drawing on her years of teaching experience, Helen photocopied and laminated the story of The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and sewed it on to her picket fence so children could read it as they walked by.

“It was a shy start, but soon people were coming back to read the story again,” she said. “Then more people joined them.”

Helen’s neighbours thought this was fun too, so they asked for a story. Before long, Helen had added several more children’s stories to the fences in the neighbourhood.

“The cries of delight from families as children danced and bounced up and down the street reading the stories were very spirit-lifting,” she said. “People didn’t grump anymore. They smiled and waved and said hello.”

The success of her neighbourhood story-reading initiative gave Helen the confidence to take it one step further and fulfill a dream she had had for some time to begin a small neighbourhood library.

“With my next door neighbours, we set about building a free library on the fence,” she said. “It took some time to build, paint and decorate, but we persevered and got it done.”

Together with her daughter Erica, with whom she has been doing an online woodworking course, Helen made a footstool and repainted a chair she had picked up on a roadside rubbish pile.

Within days they had a steady stream of visitors coming along to borrow or take a book and some people were bringing their own books to swap.

“They are retired people, families with children who come to get a picture story book and just as many adults, who drop by every day or so, sit in the chair while they have a quick read to see if they like it, then off they go, book under the arm,” Helen said. “It’s lovely listening to them as they choose a book.”

One young boy received an extra surprise when he asked Helen’s neighbour who had built the little house for the books.

“My neighbour replied that her husband, Bob, had built it. The boy’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. ‘Bob the Builder built it! Can I meet him?’

“I have promised to make Bob a hard-hat so that when he sees the boy again, he can meet him properly attired (like Bob the Builder).”

Helen said the small initiative of sharing a children’s story on her front fence had taken on a wonderful life of its own and had enlivened the local neighbourhood during the difficult time of the pandemic restrictions.

“It has been a really joyful experience watching so many people taking pleasure in sharing books with each other,” she said.

“We enjoy topping up the books regularly and chatting with the many people who want to say thank you. Winning all the way round!”