Emily Bhatnagar has donated over 15,000 books to local hospitals since her father’s stage 4 thyroid cancer diagnosis in 2019.
After hearing of the diagnosis, Bhatnagar, a sophomore in high school at the time, shut herself off from the world. She was filled with anxiety and worried that she might not have much time left with her father Mike, as he was her best friend.
“I didn’t go to a single football game, party, homecoming, or prom — all I could think about was, ‘How much time do I have left? What if I leave the house and he dies?’” she shared with NextShark.
To support her family, Bhatnagar, now 19, became her father’s caregiver while also managing virtual classes and working shifts at her parents’ store, Monsoon Kitchens, in Gaithersburg, Maryland.
Eventually, the anxiety stemming from her father’s diagnosis led to an eating disorder and her hospitalization for depression
Taking a break from school, Bhatnagar took solace in reading, which had always been a source of comfort for her since childhood.
As the daughter of Indian immigrants, Bhatnagar turned to books at times when she “felt so out of place.”
“When I read books with characters I saw myself in, it felt freeing,” she recalled. “It felt like a special secret between that character and for once I felt ‘normal.’”
As a child, Bhatnagar’s favorite thing to read was the “American Girl: Julie” book series, in which the protagonist moves to a new school and struggles to fit in, much like Bhatnagar herself. “I just found so much comfort in her experiences. Like mine, her mom owned a small business too and I could really relate to that.”
Bhatnagar decided to start a book drive, which she would eventually call “For Love & Buttercup,” in July 2021.
“I think the idea came from a place of sadness if I’m being honest,” she said. “I had spent the past few years before that just barely coping with my dad’s stage four cancer diagnosis. It broke my heart seeing my dad sick, and the thought of a small child fighting the same disease while not being able to understand it fully just broke my heart.”
However, considering the prevalence of digital books in today’s society, she felt nervous about her idea.
She wondered whether physical books would still appeal to the children, asking herself, “What if they don’t even want a book?”
Despite her initial hesitation, she posted a request for used books for children with cancer on the community networking app NextDoor.
Since then, she has been collecting and donating books to hospitals across Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.
Additionally, Bhatnagar adds a personal touch to her deliveries by making bookmarks and handwritten notes for the children who receive the donated books. She often visits the children in person, accompanied by her father, whose health has been improving.
Bhatnagar is currently on a gap year from college to continue taking care of her father, but she has no plans of stopping her book drive anytime soon.
Her current ambition is to collect books from all over the East Coast before taking her book drive to a national level with the support of her parents, who are always encouraging her to pursue her dreams.
“I see how proud my dad is and it makes my heart so full,” she said.
Bhatnagar plans to study psychology with the goal of working with children. Her ultimate aspiration is to travel to underdeveloped countries and build schools for children in need.
Bhatnagar welcomes book donations through Instagram DMs and also has an Amazon Wishlist for those who wish to contribute to her cause.
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