Photograph by Kerri Richardson

Karen McEwen is a graduate student studying to be a librarian. She also volunteers with the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project, which sends reading material to inmates.

Volunteers file in, as Karen McEwen slides her dark hair behind her ear and asks for help. She needs to get donated books out of her car.

She sorts the books, deciding if they are worth keeping or selling. She looks them up on the Internet, peering over the edge of her glasses while also fielding questions from volunteers.

"Karen, where can I find this type of book?" one of the volunteers asks. "Karen, they asked for this, but we don't have it," says another. "What should I send instead?"

McEwen, 38, is the go-to person for the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project, a group that sends reading materials to prisoners. When Pages changed locations to 118 S. Rogers St. earlier this past summer, McEwen helped with the process, weeding out unnecessary books and organizing shelves.

She is a graduate student, a librarian and a volunteer.

"When I was in high school I was always mistaken for the librarian at school," McEwen said.

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It took years for McEwen to realize that becoming a librarian was what she wanted to do. She grew up in northern Virginia near Washington D.C. In 1992 she received her bachelor's degree in World Literature at Pennsylvania State University.

After graduation, she spent a couple years in business and legal positions and decided to get her paralegal certification. At the time, she worked mainly with real estate contracts. Then the market took a downturn and her position as a land contract administrator was eliminated.

"McEwen is the go-to person for the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project."

In previous jobs she had excelled at organization and information gathering, so she decided to go back to school to become a librarian.

"As I looked back at different stages of my life and career, it always comes back to a love of literature, a love of learning and books themselves," McEwen said. "So I decided it just made sense."

She chose IU because of its "sheer variety" of programs. It was through her classes at IU that she found Pages. She went for the first time during a pack-a-thon the organization had and was "completely fascinated with everything they were doing."

McEwen started out as a volunteer, answering letters and filling requests like everyone else. Then she wanted to get more involved. She has volunteered for a little over a year now and helps with fundraising and keeping track of donations. She sees Pages as practice for her career and loves it when she presents an idea and those in charge tell her to go for it, "without knowing what they're getting into," she said.

"She's awesome, she's really helpful," said Searle Slutzkin, the advocate for community engagement for Pages. "She is a great asset to the organization because of what she does for us. She's very nice, very friendly, loves helping people and is very committed to what she does."

McEwen lowers her voice and speaks with emotion when talking about the issues prisoners face. She has strong opinions about censorship and access to outside materials for prisoners, especially literacy. What really upsets her is that there are plenty of programs for people who want to help children to read but not enough to help adults.

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Reading is one of the main joys of McEwen's life, and it takes up a lot of her time. She also spends time in class and doing volunteer work. She also likes spending time with her cat, Romeo Alexander, whom she calls a "seven-and-half-pound dictator."

"It was through her classes at IU that she found Pages."

When she graduates in December, McEwen plans to continue volunteering with Pages until she finds a job with an academic library. If she has to move away from Bloomington, she would still collect books for Pages.

Pages and the prisoners she hears from in the letters have had a huge impact on her life and have affected her views of her work and volunteering throughout the time she's been at IU.

McEwen takes a deep breath. "Everybody knows what it's like to be alone," she said. "I don't know of anyone who's more alone than prisoners, and to be able to offer something, a book, to me it doesn't really matter what they've done or not done or whatever. But just to give them something that gives me total joy in my life that is a focus of my life and to be able to share it. It's something."

Kerri Richardson can be reached at ker@indiana.edu.