First published in the Oct. 30 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
The dedication ceremony began with the ring of the 9 a.m. bell at John Muir Middle School.
School administrators, teachers, parents and students gathered in front of John Muir’s outdoor classroom Thursday, but not for a lecture. Instead, they huddled around a small wooden box near the entrance of the classroom. Painstakingly painted, the box — a “lending library” of free books for students — was filled with popular reads: “Wonder,” “Charlotte’s Web,” “Magic Tree House” and more.
But the title that earned the most attention that day was the one above the front door of the mini-library: “Evie’s Escape.” The stand is named after Evelyn “Evie” Swierczynski, a John Muir graduate who died from leukemia on Oct. 30, 2018, not long after finishing her freshman year at Burbank High School. Evie (whose nickname rhymed with “levy”) was rarely seen without a book in her hand, her family and former teachers said. And now, John Muir students can take a book from Evie’s library and read in the outdoor classroom — previously off-limits between classes — during their nutrition break.
For those who spoke at Thursday’s event, the library’s importance is twofold; it provides students easy access to beloved titles, they said, but it also keeps Evie’s memory alive. Her mother, Meredith Swierczynski, who attended the event with her husband, Duane, recalled in an interview that Evie was the type of girl who never liked seeing someone sitting alone during school lunches.
“It’s really important to our family that Evie’s name be remembered,” Meredith Swierczynski said in an interview. “That Evie, this incredible human, not be forgotten. And children, for years to come, will walk up and be like ‘Who’s Evie?’ … And there will be teachers who will talk about her. And that matters.”
John Muir’s staff pitched the idea of the lending library to the Swierczynskis during a memorial for Evie in 2019, Meredith explained. Greg Miller, the school’s principal, said in an interview that the Kiwanis Club offered to provide the school a lending library, though the family and school staff later decided to have the husband of a school worker build the amenity.
Chloe Bauer, who graduated from John Muir, spent the summer painting the library after providing an initial draft of the project about two years ago. Though she didn’t know Evie personally, she told the gathering that she worked closely with Meredith Swierczynski and the rest of the family to ensure that the design was a faithful representation of Evie’s character.
“You and your family’s commitment is contagious,” Bauer told Meredith during the event, “and what is this lending library if not a testament to the love and strength which you and your family possess in abundance? I am truly honored to have been involved in this process and to help share Evie’s story.”
Bauer painted scenes from three of Evie’s favorite books — one of the “Harry Potter” tales, “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Me Before You” — on three of the exterior walls of the library. Each of the scenes depict Evie; one shows her dressed in a witch’s robe, while in another she reads in a field while her beloved cat, Rocky, chases a butterfly. The pet is featured on the front of the library as a doodle that serves as the mascot of the Evelyn Swierczynski Foundation, the family’s nonprofit that organizes book donations and blood drives in Evie’s memory. A book drive that is running until Dec. 5 collects donations for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, though Meredith Swierczynski said some will also go to replenish the lending library’s stock.
A group of current John Muir students added more books to the library during this week’s ceremony, each reading a few lines from the text before placing it in the container.
Speaking to those who’d gathered, Swierczynski tearfully thanked Bauer for her work before reading a set of statements gathered from Evie’s closest friends. Evie, who was 15 when she died, was a “light shining in the darkness,” one said. Others remembered that she encouraged others to pursue their interests and loved to watch the sunset.
Evie loved John Muir Middle School, Assistant Principal Wendy Vargas said, being selected to address her 8th-grade graduating class.
“Evie may have said farewell to John Muir, but John Muir will never say farewell to Evie,” Vargas said. Addressing Evie’s parents, she added, “You said one of your biggest fears is the day when Evie’s name is last spoken. This lending library will ensure her name will always be spoken and her story will be told.”
After the event concluded, the attendees gathered around the lending library, praising its design and placement. The 9:50 a.m. bell rang. Moments later a crowd of students poured out from the surrounding buildings, moving to the cafeteria to get their snacks. But a few lingered, stopping by the outdoor classroom to see the new addition.
Then one student, eyes fixed on the books within the library, stepped forward and opened the door.