As a girl growing up in Maryland, Emily Bhatnagar turned to books when she felt lonely. And for Bhatnagar, that was often. While she waited for a best friend to materialize, she read books.
“They kept me company and I became so immersed in them,” she tells TODAY.com. “It felt like I was less lonely.
Now 19, Bhatnagar says books have remained a source of solace — and have given her a sense of purpose. Since 2019, Bhatnagar has donated over 15,000 books to children undergoing cancer treatment through her book drive, For Love and Buttercup.
“I thought about how (buttercup flowers) represent everything pure and innocent and happy in the world,” she says. “That’s exactly what I want these kids undergoing chemo treatment to feel. I wish that so badly for them that they can still feel that innocence.”
Her journey began at home. In late 2019, Bhatnagar and her family received the news no one wants to hear: Her father, Mike Bhatnagar, whom she calls her best friend, was diagnosed with stage 4 thyroid cancer.
The next year, with the pandemic in the background, Bhatnagar balanced virtual school and her shifts at Monsoon Kitchens, her family’s prepared food store in Gaithersburg, Maryland. She also took on the added responsibility of being a caregiver for her father.
“I would tube feed him during my small breaks,” she tells TODAY.com over the phone. “I wanted to spend more time with him just in case anything were to happen. At that point my anxiety was so bad I had to take a break from high school.”
So Bhatnagar pressed pause on high school for almost the entirety of her senior year. While grappling with her anxiety, as well as depression and an eating disorder spurred by the pressure of his diagnosis, Bhatnagar says she felt lost and empty.
And she began thinking about the thousands of children in her dad’s shoes, also facing a life-upending cancer diagnosis.
“I thought, There’s a child out there who’s fighting the same or a similar battle as my dad,” she says. “Imagine being that young and having to go through that and not understanding it fully. I thought about how terrifying that would be.”
From there, the lifelong avid reader got an idea. Books always made her happier as a child, so why not organize a book drive for pediatric cancer patients to bring joy to their lives, too?
On July 11, 2021, she wrote a post on the community-centric app Next Door asking neighbors to donate used books for children of all ages, from infants to teenagers.
“I got such a huge response,” she says. She and her 21-year-old brother would drive around town together picking up books.
Now, almost two years following the first book drive, Bhatnagar has collected and donated about 15,000 books to local hospitals in the Washington, D.C. area, including Children’s National Hospital, Children’s Inn at NIH, Holy Cross Hospital and Inova L. J. Murphy Children’s Hospital.
Bhatnagar calls meeting the children at the Children’s Inn at NIH the “best day” of her life. The Children’s Inn at NIH provides free housing to families around the U.S. and world as their children undergo clinical research studies.
“I still think about the kids I met,” she says. “They’re on my mind even though they’re across the world now..”
In January 2021, Bhatnagar also donated to MedStar Georgetown University, where her father was treated for cancer. “Full circle, that’s what it is,” she says.
Currently, Bhatnagar is on a gap year, working two jobs to save up money for college. She’s going full steam ahead on the book drive, too. For now, Love and Buttercup's HQ is a corner inside her family’s food preparation business, she hopes to expand one day, and is filing for 501(c)(3) status as a nonprofit.
“It would be a dream come true to be able to benefit hospitals that are a little further away from Maryland,” she says.
She even gets a helping hand from the guy who was the catalyst behind it all. Now cancer free but left without a speaking voice, her dad drives Bhatnagar drop off the boxes of books at hospitals at least once a month.
“He helps me lift up the boxes,” she says. “It’s just really heartwarming to see everything and see his reaction. It’s probably one of the most special parts of the book drive.”
Her dad, who says all that his daughter has done is “just beautiful,” never anticipated the outpouring of support she has received. While he has spent most of his life traveling the world and has lived in eight states during his 49 years in America, he has never witnessed this type of humanity.
“I have never seen such warmth and kindness from people as I have during these past few months during Emily’s book drive,” Mike Bhatnagar wrote in an email to TODAY.com. “I have learned that people have a great capacity to show love to others.”
The book drive has become more than a way for Bhatnagar to cope — it’s given her hope.
“If I’m being honest, I don’t think I’ve ever felt 'enough' a single day in my life,” she says. “And the first time I gave believing in myself a try, the book drive happened, and it’s one of the most precious things to have ever happened to me.”