A Gift for Readers

by Nov 7, 2022Nonprofits, South Brunswick

St. James Woodworkers build replica Ukrainian benches for G. V. Barbee Library on Oak Island.

When Friends of the Library Southport & Oak Island (FOLSOI) heard that the St. James Woodworkers were looking to partner with local nonprofits, they wasted no time in connecting. Three members of the FOLSOI board of directors, president Carol Brolley, vice president Cindy Phillips and past president ex-officio and publicity chair Diana Fotinatos, met with woodworkers Fred Walters and Dave Campbell to talk about what kind of project would make sense for the libraries in Southport and Oak Island. When Walters found a photo of some outdoor benches at the library in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, he shared it with everyone. The photo was taken before the benches were sadly destroyed by the war.

Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, is the site of the largest nuclear power station in Europe. There has been heavy shelling in the area and concern about a potential nuclear meltdown the powerplant. Seventy percent of the wider Zaporizhzhia region is under Russian military control, and the villages are no longer safe according to the regional military administration.

The photos of the benches, which look like open books, sealed the deal for the woodworkers. Everyone was immediately on board to replicate the benches for G. V. Barbee Sr. Library on Oak Island.

“At first we thought Fred was kidding when he proposed building replica benches,” Campbell says. “The benches are nontraditional, but they are very appealing.”

John Matter and Erika Dosher Ukraine Benches

The St. James Woodworkers, a group of hobbyist woodworkers, meet monthly to discuss and prioritize projects. The group likes to have one or two outreach projects at any one time.

“Friends of the Library is a good cause, so it was easy to say yes to the project,” Campbell says.

Woodworker John Matter volunteered to take on the role of lead craftsman. As a retired commercial construction company owner and carpenter who relocated to St. James from Philadelphia and a Philadelphia Union carpenter for 58 years, there isn’t anything he can’t fix or build. And that turns out to be a good thing. There were no plans commercially available to construct the benches that everyone had already fallen in love with, and that was not the only challenge. Brunswick County required that the benches be ADA-compliant in order to be placed outside the library on Oak Island.

With expert design ideas and tweaks along the way from Campbell, Matter first constructed mock-ups of the bench angles. It was the beginning of an 80-hour effort over three months in Matter’s home workshop. The 5-foot-long 46-inch-high benches were made of BearBoard, a type of plastic lumber that was funded through a donation from FOLSOI. The benches, which weigh an estimated 250 pounds each, have reinforced internal bulkhead support made of plywood.

Open Book Bench

Campbell says that Matter was the exact right person to take the lead on the benches: “The work was challenging. John has the skills and he is persistent.”

Matter says he just loves building things. “Designing the benches was fun,” he says. “Making the framework was the hard part.”

Using a bandsaw and a sabre saw, Matter cut 28 12-foot pieces of plastic lumber into 75 pieces used for the bench seats and backs.  The size of the benches dictated that much of the assembly as well as finishing touches be done in Matter’s driveway, forcing early morning and late-evening work sessions to avoid the summer’s searing temperatures. Woodworkers Dick Meyer and Joe Zukowski helped plug 350 screw holes in the benches as part of the finishing work.

It took several men to load the benches into volunteer Phil Slack’s truck to transport them to Barbee Library.

“I am so appreciative!” Barbee Library Manager Erika Dosher says. “The benches are probably the kindest thing anyone has ever done for our library.”

Ukraine Benches Kurt Simmons

Dosher helped determine where the benches would be permanently located.  “We wanted a place where they would be noticed in front of the library, away from noise so patrons can enjoy and appreciate them when they visit the library,” she says.

It didn’t take long for the library patrons to notice the benches. Patron Sarah Campbell says, “The benches are so darn cute. They are clever and attractive! And in the perfect spot.”

Kurt Simmons and his three-year-old daughter, Bella, from Oak Island were the first to try out the benches. “I like them a lot,” Simmons says. Bella was all smiles!

The replica benches are truly beautiful, meaningful works of art.  Fotinatos says, “Recreating the Ukrainian benches sends a message of how reading brings people together. If the St. James Woodworkers had not stepped up to build the benches, we would have never been able to bring such a beautiful, meaningful work of art to the patrons of Barbee Library.”

If only these books could talk. Imagine the stories they would tell years from now about their Ukrainian design and all the people who sat on them over the years.

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