Evelyn “Evie” Swierczynski loved to read.
Wendy Vargas, assistant principal at John Muir Middle School, where Evie attended 8th grade, said she always had a book in her hand. Her mother, Meredith, said she often had a stack of tomes nearby.
Evie still loved books when she was at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, having been diagnosed with leukemia just after finishing her freshman year at Burbank High School, where she was in the theater program, in 2018. Even when the chemotherapy made concentrating on reading hard, Meredith Swierczynski said, she and the rest of the family appreciated having them.
Staff members and volunteers with the hospital’s Child Life program would bring Evie DVDs, games and crafts, while the CHLA Literally Healing program provided a new book every day. The latter was a particularly encouraging initiative, Swierczynski said in a phone interview. When Evie was in treatment and couldn’t leave her room on some days, a volunteer could come in wearing a gown and gloves and offer her a book.
“The program is really important to keep … spirits lifted for those patients,” the mother said.
Swierczynski added that her family, including her husband, Duane, an author, kept waiting to give the books back — until they realized they were theirs to keep.
Sadly, Evie never recovered, and she died on Oct. 30, 2018. She was 15 years old.
“She’s the best person I could ever have known,” Meredith Swierczynski said of her daughter, whom she described as a young activist who was always looking out for people that didn’t seem to have any friends. “She made me a better person.”
A little more than two years later, the Swierczynski family and Burbank community members are giving back to the CHLA Literally Healing program that helped support Evie. An event, Evie’s Holiday Book Drive, is collecting new books to be donated to the hospital, which will distribute them to patients. Starting this year, caregivers are receiving books as well.
Those who wish to participate can either buy books on the family’s Amazon wish list at TeamEvieFoundation.com or drop off books at the Dark Delicacies bookstore on North Hollywood Way.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and to protect immunocompromised patients, only new books will be accepted. Donors in Texas and Pennsylvania will also be dropping off books.
Evie’s story and the book drive likely aren’t new to some Burbank residents; this is the third year the event will be held in her memory. The Swierczynskis also lead an annual blood drive in July, around the time of Evie’s birthday.
Meredith Swierczynski admitted to being surprised by the outpouring of support from the local community in 2018, with about 1,000 books being collected and dropped off at CHLA. In 2019, that amount doubled to about 2,000 books.
She is maintaining that target this year, knowing that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many are finding themselves with lighter wallets. But she has also already been surprised by the number of donations received — less than a week after the drive began on Oct. 23, she opened her post office box to find more than 100 books had been sent.
And the book drive isn’t the only way the Burbank community is seeking to remember Evie. Vargas said John Muir Middle School, in consultation with Swierczynski, has been planning to add a small “take a book, leave a book” library in the school’s outdoor classroom in honor of the former student. The pandemic threw a wrench into those plans, but Vargas hopes to model the design of the space after Evie’s favorite things.
“She was just absolutely amazing,” Vargas said by phone. “Everything that she did was positive, and so I think especially now, with people being so divided, that that would just be her … to be a strong woman and pass on kindness and positivity.”
Del Howison, one of the owners of Dark Delicacies, said Evie and her family — which includes brother Parker — were customers of the horror-themed gift and book shop. Howison tries to partner regularly with charities, he added, but the book drive is more personal.
“I don’t think there is any other gift you can give that’s better than the gift of a book or the gift of imagination,” he said by phone. “Because [for] those kids that are stuck in the hospital, the gift of imagination lets them travel anywhere they want to go.”
Meredith Swierczynski admitted that talking about Evie and the book drive, which extends through Dec. 4, is always a difficult process. But she expressed appreciation for those who have supported the family and have donated books to the CHLA.
“It makes all of this hurt just a tinier bit easier to manage,” she said.