Tuesday, February 2, 2016

A Q&A with Caroline Burch, Winner of the 2015 Pamela B. Art Humanitarian Award

The award, given annually, honors a Storey employee who enriches her or his community through charitable work.

Caroline Burch, with her award. Photo by Mars Vilaubi
Caroline Burch is a busy woman. At any given moment, she might be helping to plan a future Storey title, or traveling to a press to oversee the printing process, or inspecting the first official copies of a book to make sure everything is as it should be. 

A self-proclaimed “dot-connector,” Caroline’s job as production director takes her across borders and oceans, from Canada to China, where she gets to know the people behind the presses. But the work of forging connections doesn’t stop when she’s on her home turf. 

Over the years, she has visited inmates at a New York State correctional facility, coached T-ball, read for the blind, tutored for the Northern Berkshire literacy program, volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, and directed a Sweet Adelines Barbershop Chorus, performing all over Western Massachusetts and Southern Vermont. These days, she serves as Chairman of the Library Trustees for Stamford Community Library in Vermont and volunteers at the Berkshire Food Project, where she can be found serving meals every other Friday. 

In the office, whether we’re seeking information on a hard-to-find book, the phone number of a good mechanic, a personalized song for a colleague’s retirement party, or a late-afternoon snack (in the form of the bottomless supply of peanuts she keeps by her desk), we count on Caroline. Her warmth, humor, and spirit are deeply woven into the fabric of Storey, and we’re thrilled that she was named the winner of 2015 Pamela B. Art Humanitarian Award. Congratulations, Caroline!

When you accepted your award in December, you told a great story about your father. Would you mind sharing it with readers?

My late father was a college botany professor who was used to speaking in lecture-length blocks of time. One Sunday, back when I was in high school, he stood up during the silent period in our Quaker Meeting and said, “Someone once said ‘I’d rather be right than president.’ I’d rather be helpful than right.” After I got over my shock at his having expressed himself in so few words, I realized that he had just succinctly described the atmosphere in which I was raised.

My brother, sister, and I were fortunate to have parents who lived by genuine example every day. If someone needed an emergency ride to the airport, we drove them, no questions asked. If a foreign exchange student was having difficulty in the home where they were placed, we took them in. If a college student couldn’t get home for a holiday, we gladly welcomed them at our table.

We learned to have a wider view outside ourselves, accept others without judgment, be compassionate to those in need, and we developed a sense of wanderlust that has led to wonderful experiences and lifelong friendships with people all over the world. How lucky were we?

I am incredibly fortunate to have had wonderful role models in my life at Storey, as well — from my award predecessors, Deb Burns and Maribeth Casey, to [Storey Publishing founders] John and Martha Storey, Pam Art [former Storey president], and Dan Reynolds [Workman Publishing CEO], who have given us all the opportunity to be the best we could be.

You seem like someone who has both an ability to see “the big picture” and an amazing grasp of detail. How do you think that quality informs your commitment to working in your community?

I come from a family that’s big on belt-and-suspender approaches to things and I am generally a dirt-under-the-fingernails, list-making person, so I comfortably spend much of my time in the details. But, after 29 years at Storey under the influence of classically trained Big Picture thinkers, I developed the ability to be a more expansive thinker.

When you live in a small town and serve on any boards, you have to be able to handle both traits. Our library trustees must plan for the future while remembering to pick up the cider for that evening’s program. You have to get on board or get out of the way.

What are the causes that are especially important to you for the year ahead?

As it happens, my interests align perfectly with those outlined by Storey as a company: literacy, healthy food/food security, and community. Advocating for literacy has always been important to me. Today, though, literacy is much more than being able to read, and people take in information in many other ways. Perhaps just as important is making sure people are interacting with one another and seeing that their lives hold greater possibilities.

One organization I want to commit to is the Hoosic River Revival, spearheaded by former Storeyite Judy Grinnell. Ultimately, access to more natural, open spaces and expanded recreational opportunities helps improve the overall health and well-being of any community.

What advice do you have for people who would like to be more involved in their communities but haven’t yet found that thing they want to do, or don’t have a sense of what they could offer?

I’m no expert, but if you are trying to decide where to devote your time, I would consider the following:
  1. What are you most passionate about? What brings you the most satisfaction? What would get you to go back out on a cold, dark winter night?
  2. Ask your friends what they are involved in or if they know anyone at an organization you are interested in. Getting anecdotal advice and networking makes it easier to narrow down your options, and participating with a friend is a great way to get a toe in the door. 
  3. Start out conservatively. Consider volunteering for a short-term task (designing a poster, answering fund drive phones) that doesn’t require a long-term commitment. See how it feels. It’s good to contribute in areas that play to your strengths. Eventually you may find it’s fun to step outside your comfort zone and expand your capabilities.
  4. Do something. Just take the plunge. If what you choose isn’t fulfilling, do something else. You can always support several causes in different ways.

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