Before I had even reached Burgess Hill Library, it became clear to me that it’s a huge part of the community each time I asked someone for directions.
Everyone knew where it was.
Even the people who I hadn’t asked the way but who’d overheard me asking, pointed it out.
“That way!” “It’s on the left -” “You’re very close!”
Burgess Hill Library is situated inside a building that also houses Martlets Hall, an events and entertainment centre. From the outside, it doesn’t perhaps look that uplifting but walking through its doors, I was immediately hit by the care, love and inspiration that was evident in every corner.
I loved this ‘Killer Women’-themed bookshelf…
… and this comic book display …
… and the people playing board games …
… and the toy library …
… and the children’s artwork on the walls …
… and a food collection bin for those who really needed it.
The staff were going above and beyond to make this library an extraordinarily welcoming and interesting place for all, an absolute centre for the community here.
I followed one of the Scrabble players out to ask her about the library.
Daya, an Indian teacher, now retired, immediately showed me a display of all the events that were on at the library for the Burgess Hill festival.
“They are lovely people here,” she told me when I asked her why she came here.
“Do you live here? Have you come for the festival?” she asked me.
When I told her that neither were true but that I’d come to visit Oakmeeds Community College to do a day of workshops and was going home that afternoon, she promptly invited me to stay with her overnight and so I could partake in the festival.
“Have you got time to talk?” she asked me.
I told her I did and she quickly settled me down in a chair, gave me a cupcake and told me about her life.
“I used to work with children from ethnic minorities,” she told me. “And one day I was asked to do a talk for a nursery, really young children. I mean how could I give them a talk? But when I was there I saw these dolls in the corner. They were dressed in old baby clothes and I had an idea.
What if the dolls were wearing, instead of old baby clothes, a sari from India, an Indian outfit. The children would then be able to say, what lovely fabric, look at these colours. We could start the conversation through what the dolls were wearing.
An Indian boy who joined the school might come in and see the doll. He would smile. He would recognise the sari. He would point to the doll and say Mummy, he would see himself in the room. It would be positive for everyone.
My husband and I used to go to Bangalore to work with the slum children there. In India, you have to pay for education after seven. I mean officially you do not have to but really that is what happens. People do not pay for their daughters to keep going to school, they pay for their sons, and so I would teach girls over there. I would be looking after my mother in law and then she would have a nap and I’d go and teach. Then I’d come back and we would have dinner. She’d never know that I’d been out.
I had the idea that I could teach the girls to sew Indian clothes for the dolls. They made gathered skirts and little blouses. The first time they made 200 and we sold 194 straightaway.
We didn’t need the money and so we decided to make it into a charity. We made a board from people from our church and other people we knew. We had such fun, me and my husband. We had fourteen years of doing this together. Such fun.
We made Chinese clothes, Nigerian, Polish, Somalian … I didn’t know how to do Somalian clothes but I met a Somalian woman in an airport and I told her what I was doing. She took me into the toilets, undressed and showed me exactly what I needed to know, how her clothes were put together.”
I had the feeling that I wasn’t the first person to be utterly charmed by Daya. I told her how much I was enjoying our conversation.
“Are you bored?” she asked me.
Not at all, I told her. I explained that I just wanted her to know how much I loved her story and thanked her again for sharing it with me.
“Because I’m not finished,” she said. “We made all different kinds of outfits after that, that would fit children up to primary age, for dressing up and everything. We made decorations. And then, and then my husband died.
That changed things. He was the treasurer and he ran it. I was just doing the fun stuff. So we decided to give it away and what we found, what we found was that we had made one hundred thousand pounds.
One hundred thousand pounds.
We had no overheads you see, we paid the girls in Bangalore of course but in the UK it was just in our house, it was just our telephone. No one took a wage.
So we gave the one hundred thousand pounds away.
We gave it to women in India who wanted more education but in the end we couldn’t give it to enough individuals fast enough and so we gave it to a building for educating nurses in India.
It was such fun giving the money away, to people who needed it. I met so many different kinds of people, all with different stories.”
I had been struck by a thought as I listened to Daya tell me about her life.
Daya was like a library.
She was kind, she was welcoming.
She was generous, she was giving to the people who needed help the most.
She had endless ideas.
She was full of possibilities of where life might take you if you were open to it.
She had time for you if you had time for her.
She was for everybody, regardless of where you were from, or what your background was.
I told Daya how inspiring she was, and again how glad I was that we had met that day in Burgess Hill Library.
“I’m Christian. It’s funny because when I look back at what happened, I can see that it was all God,” she told me. “He directed me.”
I told her that I was an atheist.
And that I thought that it was all her.
We agreed to disagree and swapped addresses.
She walked me to the station and we said goodbye.
Hugging each other, as old friends do.