Colin Mills: Announcing RCA’s 2013 Citizen of the Year

Colin Mills/File photoIt’s time once again for one of my favorite duties as RCA President: announcing our Citizen of the Year.

With so many dedicated citizens doing good work in the Reston community, I am delighted that we can honor some of those well-deserving folks. I love reading the nominations we receive, and learning about the citizen volunteers that make Reston such a special place.

RCA is all about the power of Reston’s committed citizens to achieve great things. It may be fashionable to be cynical about what individuals and citizen groups can accomplish in a world of big bureaucracies and institutions. But RCA is built on the belief that with hard work and dedication, our citizens can move mountains.

This year’s winner is a shining example of that belief in action. It gives me great pleasure to announce Kathy Kaplan as our 2013 Citizen of the Year.Kathy joins a proud tradition of RCA Citizen of the Year award dating back to 1976; people like Embry Rucker, Janet Howell, Jim Allred, Claudia Thompson-Deahl, Dave Edwards, and last year’s winner, Cate Fulkerson.  As you know if you’re familiar with this award, the criteria for selection are as follows:

1. The nominee has been a Reston resident for at least 5 years.

2. The nominee’s actions are consistent with the goals of Reston, and of RCA.

3. The nominee’s actions have contributed to the quality of life in Reston.

4. People in need of help have benefited from the nominee’s actions.

5. The nominee’s deeds were done without thought of personal benefit or recognition.

6. The nominee is not currently serving as an elected public official or a member of the Board of a major community organization (RA, RCA, or RCC).

Kathy is the sort of active, engaged citizen that every community needs. She reads the kind of long, boring official documents that most of us can’t be bothered with. Sometimes, those documents contain some interesting surprises.  For instance, in the spring of 2013, Kathy found out about plans that had the potential to do serious damage to Fairfax County libraries.

This included the infamous “Beta Plan.” You may have read about it last summer and fall.  RCA passed a resolution opposing it last August.  If you have heard about it, you can thank Kathy for you dedication perseverance, and leadership in bringing the plan to light.

Through research, conversations with knowledgeable sources, and numerous FOIA requests, Kathy uncovered a grim picture of the future of our library system. In addition to the Beta Plan – which would have slashed library staff, de-professionalized position requirements, and eliminated specialized positions for youth librarians – Kathy discovered that the library budget had been reduced by a third over the last six years.  Even worse, she discovered that the library had reduced the size of their collection by a quarter-million items since 2005, and that many books in good condition were being thrown in dumpsters and destroyed.  Not donated to book sales or given away to charities – destroyed.

As a longtime book lover, Kathy was rightly horrified at what she learned.  But she didn’t just write a letter to the editor or grumble about it under her breath. No, she swung into action. She identified county librarians and library supporters who were also concerned about the changes, and worked with them to get the word out. She wrote emails and letters to County officials, community organizations, and media outlets.  She helped get over 2,000 signatures on a petition to stop the Beta Plan. She met with County staffers and elected officials to learn more about the library issue and to show them what she had found out.

The turning point for the issue came when Kathy acquired and shared photos of library books sitting in a dumpster.  This had been alleged previously, but now there was visual evidence. These photos led Providence District Supervisor Linda Smyth to do some dumpster diving of her own; when she retrieved books in good condition that had been thrown out, the resulting outcry really focused attention on the problems in our libraries.

Thanks to the efforts of Kathy and her colleagues, the Library Board and the Board of Supervisors voted to eliminate both the book-trashing program and the Beta Plan. With continued public support, we should see the library’s funding restored in future County budgets as well. This was a tremendous win for citizen activism, and it wouldn’t have happened without  Kathy’s dedication and tireless work.

Since Kathy is a Restonian and the Reston Regional Library was one of the targets for the Beta Plan, RCA was one of the first organizations she contacted with her discoveries. When she shared what she had learned, frankly, our first reaction was disbelief. How could this be happening to such a valuable county resource? But when we followed up and discovered that what Kathy said was true, we were gratified that Kathy had done the leg work and let us know about the Beta Plan and the book-culling before it was too late to act.

If the only thing that Kathy did for Reston was her library activism, it would have been enough to make her a deserving Citizen of the Year. But Kathy is a longtime Restonian, and she has done much more for the community.  She has served as an interpretive naturalist at the Vernon Walker Nature Center, and she has taught art workshops to kids at RA camps.  She is an award-winning author and illustrator.  And she has created bronze relief sculptures for the Sept. 11 Memorial at Brown’s Chapel, and the Woodland Gardens at the Walker Center. Kathy is a woman of many talents.

We will be honoring Kathy in a ceremony at RCC Hunters Woods in the coming weeks.  I’ll share the date and time as soon as it is finalized.  I hope you’ll join us to honor a woman who showed that you can fight City Hall – and that individual citizens can make a big difference in our community.

Colin Mills is the president of Reston Citizens Association.

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