The year 2019 was arguably the worst of Emily Bhatnagar’s life thus far, and yet, it also led to what she describes as “one of the most precious things to have ever happened” to her: a book drive.
You may have read about the Maryland 19-year-old, who was profiled in The Washington Post in late 2021 shortly after she founded the drive.
The Gaithersburg teen started collecting used and new books for pediatric patients as a way to channel the overwhelming anxiety she faced after her father was given a terrifying cancer diagnosis—stage 4 thyroid cancer—in 2019. “He’s my best friend and we do literally everything together, so it was very hard on me,” she says, thinking back on that time. “At that point, I had started becoming really overwhelmed with everything.”
Struggling with an eating disorder and depression on top of the anxiety, Bhatnagar had to temporarily pull out of high school during her senior year. All throughout that time, however, she found solace in the place she always had: books. (Her favorite, she says, are Kierra Cass’s Selection Series.)
As her father began to recover, Bhatnagar wanted to help children dealing with the same scary disease as her father. Hoping they could find a similar escape in literature, she created her book drive, “For Love and Buttercup”—a name that conjures feelings of happiness and bliss, she says. “I hope when children receive my books, when they rip open the sparkly wrapping paper or flip through the pages, that that’s what they feel, even after chemo and everything, at least for a few seconds,” says Bhatnagar.
Since founding her book drive, Bhatnagar has donated more than 15,000 books to local pediatric hospitals, including Children’s National, Inova Health, Holy Cross, and MedStar Georgetown, where her father was treated. And though her father is now cancer-free, Bhatnagar isn’t in any rush to stop her book drive.
“It’s one of the most precious things to have ever happened to me,” says Bhatnagar, who was awarded the President’s Volunteer Service award last year for her work. “I didn’t expect it to last this long.”
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However, she says donations have waned recently. “I’m not really sure what to do about it,” she says. “I’ve tried everything.”
In addition to buying books with the tips she earns working at her parents’ bakery, Monsoon Kitchens in Gaithersburg, Bhatnagar has also become her own PR manager, reaching out to publications with her story. As she figures things out, she says she’s also begun the process of filing for official nonprofit status.
“Right now it’s just me doing everything for the organization,” she says. “Once I file for 501(c)(3), hopefully I can have people helping me.”
For now, she’s hoping people can continue to keep her cause alive by purchasing books from her Amazon wish list, which contains a vast assortment of titles, or by donating lightly used books (for more info on how to donate, she says to text 240-560-2652).