Five years ago, I lost my best friend.

I felt like the bottom fell out of my world but I knew that Wendy Wayne, my best friend, would have said turn your grief into something positive. That’s how Wendy’s Words Libraries was born.

The story is familiar to many – how I decided to build a little free library at my house, then thought why stop there? How about a network of libraries throughout the county? And how everyone I ran the idea past said it wouldn’t work, giving me reason after reason. But among many things I learned from Wendy, one of the most important was this: turn obstacles into opportunities and erase the word “can’t” from your vocabulary.

I plunged ahead, called Little Free Library in Wisconsin and talked it over. They liked the idea. I had a press conference with Wendy’s husband Gene Tackett, and almost immediately Linda Sullenger called to say she had built a library – our first!

Our mission statement is to promote reading, encourage literacy and foster community. Five years later, we have 68 libraries – that’s over one new library a month. Additionally, there are numerous little libraries in Kern County that aren’t affiliated with Wendy’s Words.

Five years ago, there were none. Each book that leaves a Wendy’s Words library has a sticker inside with Wendy’s Words to live by, and judging by the number of stickers we’ve had printed and given to library stewards, we’ve put at least 50,000 books into circulation.

In addition to Bakersfield, we have libraries in Taft; Frazier Park; Wasco; Shafter; Morro Bay; Modesto; Burbank; Austin; Las Cruces; Ventura; Sheridan, Wyoming; Hart Flat; Marina, CA; Everett, WA; and Ontario, Canada.

We have libraries in WIC offices, community gardens, the Ronald McDonald House, the Centre for Neuro Skills, the Kern County Daughter Project, BC Child Development Center and the Kern County Animal Shelter Tales for Tails program. I think we’ve done a pretty good job meeting our mission statement.

We’re an organization of three people plus library stewards – me, Pat Johnson and Bernadette Ferguson, the woman with the Big Red Phone Booth Library downtown. A year or two ago Bernadette and I talked about her taking over the helm of Wendy’s Words at the five-year mark – Nov. 28 of this year.

I’ve brought it to a place I’m happy with along with Pat and Bernadette’s help, and she will infuse it with fresh ideas, energy, and her own touch. She has a mobile library in the works that should be realized this next year.

No matter what folks say about Bakersfield, our people are the best. We embody one of the tenets that Wendy lived by – volunteer, perform intentional and random acts of kindness and make the world a better place. It feels good to make other people feel good. Every library steward, individual who donated books, or participated in Wendy’s Words in any way did just that.

I may have had the idea but without help from the community it would have remained a sterile idea, doing nothing for anyone. You made it happen, and Bernadette is going to be a star! Thank you, everyone. Wendy’s Words is going to get bigger and better. The need is huge, so keep the libraries coming!

Susan Reep is an award-winning artist and photographer from Bakersfield.