On Emily Bhatnagar’s 16th birthday last year, her father was told he may only have a few days left to live.
Her mother managed the family’s small Indian bread shop, Monsoon Kitchens, in Gaithersburg, Md., where they live. Whenever Bhatnagar could spare an hour or two away from schoolwork or caring for her dad, she was at the shop, helping to fill the void her father’s absence left on the fragile family business.
“I tried to do everything I could,” said Bhatnagar, now 17 and a senior at Quince Orchard High School. “No one told me I had to, I just wanted to.”
“My dad has always been my best friend,” she said. “We did everything together.”
Dealing with her father’s diagnosis was agonizing.
She quickly developed her own serious health issues — including depression, anxiety and an eating disorder, which became so severe that she was hospitalized and pulled out of school for several months, she said.
“Am I going to die?” she recalled thinking to herself more than once.
Through it all, though, she had a constant source of comfort: books.
Growing up as a child of immigrants from India, “I felt like I didn’t belong,” she said. “Books always cheered me up when I needed a friend during recess or wanted company during lunch. Books were my company.”
As she processed her father’s illness, as well as her own health concerns and the pandemic, Bhatnagar wanted a way to channel her anxiety into something good. Books were her solace, so maybe, she thought, she could help others who were facing challenges also escape into the pages of a book.
This summer, as her father’s cancer stabilized, she decided to start collecting new or lightly used books for children of all ages, with the aim of distributing them to health-care facilities across D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Since July, Bhatnagar has collected more than 7,000 books.
When she initially wrote a post asking for books on the neighborhood networking site Nextdoor, “I was expecting two to three responses,” she said.
To her delight, hundreds of neighbors eagerly offered to support her book drive, and before long, “there were boxes of books just stacked at my front door,” Bhatnagar said. “It was so overwhelming, but in the best way.”
She decided to call the initiative “For Love and Buttercup,” since buttercup flowers have a childlike charm for her and also symbolize happiness.
Initially, the books — which are mostly collected through an Amazon Wish List — were intended to go to pediatric cancer patients, but given the unexpected outpouring of donations, Bhatnagar is also distributing the books to health-care institutions that cater to kids.
On Oct. 5, Bhatnagar’s father — who had recovered from an emergency tracheotomy — rented a U-Haul with his wife, and they drove her to deliver 2,215 books, along with handwritten notes and handcrafted bookmarks she made, to Children’s National Hospital in D.C.
The books, hospital staff said, were a well-received gift, particularly by patients who are undergoing continuous care.
“Here at Children’s National, we treat kids who stay in the hospital for extended periods of time. Reading helps to distract them and makes the time go by quicker,” Allie Slocum, patient family library and resource coordinator at the Children’s National Hospital, wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “Donations of new books for a variety of ages is always appreciated.”
Likewise, staff at Inova Health System in Virginia are thrilled about the 1,400 donated books Bhatnagar dropped off on Sunday.
“A book is super valuable. It is a small thing that can have a big impact,” said Fadi Saadeh, senior director of community health at the Inova Cares Clinic for Families, which provides services to underinsured and uninsured patients.
“She is an amazing person. Emily is going to have a huge impact on our patients,” said Saadeh, explaining that many of the children who are treated at Inova “may not have access to books.”
Bhatnagar has also donated several hundred books to an under-resourced Baltimore elementary school, and she is scheduled to deliver 100 books and handwritten cards to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.
The feeling she gets from collecting and donating books is, “the best thing ever,” Bhatnagar said, adding that she also buys books to contribute to the initiative, using tips she earns while working at her family’s bread shop. “The book drive has been really therapeutic; it gives me a sense of purpose.”
Bhatnagar’s health has steadily improved in recent months, and so has her father’s. He said his daughter’s project has brought him immense joy.
“I feel so proud of her, and I am sure all those kids are enjoying those books as well,” said Mike Bhatnagar, in a text message to The Post, as his vocal cords are mostly paralyzed due to a procedure.
Since the start of her book gathering, “she has come out of her shell so much,” said his wife, Jyoti Bhatnagar. “It’s like she found her voice, and it’s so beautiful to see her using it to spread joy.”
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