You can’t always judge a book by its cover, and Sydney Gray is not your typical 9-year-old.

Gray, a student at Field-Stevenson Elementary, was recently recognized by the school board for organizing a book drive that collected some 8,000 titles to refurbish a school library in storm-ravaged New Orleans. The students at Benjamin Franklin Elementary Mathematics and Science School in the Crescent City received their books in January after Gray and her parents, Richard and Donna, made the trip south to deliver the books.

“Books for the Bayou,” as they called the effort, was a massive project led by a pint sized philanthropist.

Gray may not yet be old enough to begin her autobiography, but her life story already contains the central theme of helping others. A fourth-grade student, she opened a lemonade stand on Madison Street last summer to raise money to help the homeless.

“My mom found a school in New Orleans and I said, ‘Maybe I can get a few of my friends to donate some books,’ Gray said. “We came up with the idea of Books for the Bayou and we just started making flyers and putting drop boxes out. It just started from there, and we started getting more and more books.”

The Gray family had been planning a vacation to New Orleans and wanted to help the delta region during its post-Hurricane Katrina recovery. Richard Gray, a North Riverside firefighter, traveled to New Orleans on Labor Day 2005 joining 599 fellow firemen from Illinois to aid the ravaged city.

“You could see bent signs and parts of roofs off homes,” he said of the natural disaster. “Power lines were still down and streets were flooded. One New Orleans fire engine hit something in the street and broke off an axle. It was unbelievable down there.”

His family kept the idea of a collective return trip in mind not only as a vacation option, but also as an opportunity to offer support to the community.

With drop boxes in Forest Park locales like Ed’s Way grocery store, Quitsch Florist and the Howard Mohr Community Center, combined with donations from family, friends and churches, the Gray’s garage quickly morphed into a veritable books-a-thousand warehouse. Other generous donations from a Chicago magnet school through Circle Ministries, the LaGrange Girl Scouts, and a financial donation from Field-Stevenson facilitated the collection of 8,000 books during a mere four month period.

“I was very excited when we got to 1,000 books,” Sydney Gray said. “When we had 8,000 books, I was like ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’ It was like a jungle in our garage. One of the best parts though was sorting through the books with my mom and dad. We had the radio bustin’ and we were dancing-it was fun.”

When the books were ready for delivery to “Baby Ben,” as the New Orleans school is affectionately called, another North Riverside firefighter Jason Williams transported the literary load in his Chevy. The Gray family flew down to the Crescent City.

“We arrived on Thursday, Jan. 10 around noon and Jason arrived about an hour after us so the timing was perfect,” said mother, Donna Gray. “We dropped the books off right away at the school. After the school librarian and teachers picked some books for the school, the rest of the books [approximately 7,000] were distributed to the parents at teacher-parent conferences. A lot of parents were communicating that we were replacing books they lost in the storm.”

While Katrina hit other areas of New Orleans more severely than Benjamin Franklin Elementary, the school endured weather-related damage.

“The kids who attend Benjamin Franklin are from all over,” Donna Gray said. “We were told that some of the children from the school were trapped in their homes and had to be rescued during Hurricane Katrina. One woman who worked at the school was on her roof for 14 hours.”

After meeting several of the students from “Baby Ben” and visiting other parts of the city in various states of recovery, Sydney Gray held bittersweet feelings about The Big Easy and its hospitable people.

“In New Orleans, I felt happy and sad,” she said. “I was happy that I was down there for my first time and it was no nice. But I also felt sad because people were still trying to get on their feet after two years. When I saw those destroyed houses, I had a gut feeling that I’d never live in Louisiana.”

The Gray family enjoyed visiting the tourist trappings the city has to offer, along with the visceral sights and sounds of New Orleans. Immersing themselves into the mystical, voodoo vibe of the city, the Grays stayed at the Place D’Armes in the French Quarter, widely regarded as a haunted hotel.

“I met some nice kids at the school,” Sydney Gray said. “It was hard but it was worth it.”