How one man’s love of literature touched the lives of area students
The cozy and vibrant library of Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School (AJC) is often filled with excited chatter as students pick out new books to take home for the weekend. If you ask for a recommendation, children are quick to point out their Birthday Books. Each student can pick out any book they want for their birthday, and the library will buy it for them and put their name inside the front cover. Once students are done reading their Birthday Books, they’ll donate the book back to the library for others to read.
The Birthday Books program is made possible by the John R. Keiper M.D. Literacy Fund, started by Martha Fitzgerald-Keiper to honor the legacy of her late husband by combining his love of literature with his passion for helping others.
“I’d ask John, ‘What do you want to do when you retire? We’ve got to have a plan, because it’s going to happen soon enough,'” Martha recalled. “He told me, ‘I’d like to help children read.’” John was a doctor near the East End for 37 years, and he was also an avid reader who believed reading was an essential part of developing an educated mind.
The Keiper family was first introduced to Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School in 2013, when their son Brian was hired as a history teacher. This independent, faith-based school provides full-tuition scholarships to 4th – 8th grade students of limited economic resources, primarily from Richmond’s East End.
“My father was the kindest and smartest man I’ve ever known, and he believed you should never stray from doing what was right, regardless of the situation or even personal detriment that it may cause you,” Brian said. “At AJC, our students know they are part of an extended family where they are valued, encouraged, and always loved. They feel safe when they walk in the doorway each morning, and as a result, they have the foundation and freedom to learn. I’ve been fortunate to witness it firsthand for the past seven years, and I know my father would be honored to know his name is connected to such a special place.”
The Keipers received an outpouring of love and support from the AJC staff when, in April 2016, Brian was hospitalized with a serious case of necrotizing fasciitis. On the second Monday in May, everyone celebrated when the doctors finally announced that Brian was expected to survive the illness – and they were devastated when John unexpectedly passed away three days later.
“When John died, we knew we had to keep his spirit alive,” Martha said. “By setting up a permanent endowment fund, I wanted his legacy to continue in the east end of town, even after we all are long gone.”
In addition to sponsoring the Birthday Book program, the fund purchases Playaway audiobooks to further promote literacy, bridge the digital divide and help make technology accessible to students. The fund also supported the purchase of several chess sets and books on how to play chess, which were well-received – so much so that AJC students won a Regional Chess Tournament with teams from all over Virginia.
“When I go into that library and see all the learning and energy that is going on,” Martha said. “I smile and think that this is where John would be if he were alive – trying to get that last bit of information to a child, to help light a spark.”