When everything locked down around her during the COVID-19 pandemic, Liz Wheeler wanted to buy more books to pass time.
Not so fast — her husband said.
"Craig suggested very kindly that maybe I get rid of some books before taking more in," she recalled.
He was right. Books were stacked up on her nightstands, dresser and overflowing from bookshelves in their Ottawa home.
That November night in 2020, Wheeler decided to launch an Instagram account to sell about a dozen good reads she owned, with the goal of making room for more.
She dubbed it "Secondhand Stories," a name that made her self-conscious.
Little did she know her project would cultivate great success.
"It was so wildly successful. Like, they got purchased all the exact same day," said Wheeler, whose friends and family started donating books for her to sell.
"I felt really weird about accepting them, and getting personal profit from it, so I said, 'Oh yeah I'll take them but I'll donate the money.'"
The donations ballooned. Secondhand Stories became a non-profit bookstore, and she held physically-distanced book sales, even partnering with local coffee shops to serve as book pickup and drop-off points.
By selling these books for just a few dollars each, Wheeler raised a whopping $25,000 for Sweet Sanctuary, a nearby local organization in Mississippi Mills, Ont., that rescues farm animals — a cause dear to the couple's heart.
"It really has been an entire community coming together," said Wheeler. "I still have to pinch myself."
Buying a home that became a micro-sanctuary
This summer, the Wheelers moved from Ottawa to a rural home in Lombardy, Ont., which is about 85 kilometres southwest of the capital.
Wheeler's dream of eventually starting her own micro-sanctuary for farm animals cropped up earlier than expected. The former homeowners had seven chickens on the property that were going to be euthanized upon the sale of the house.
"So right out of the gate, the very first day we moved, we had rescued chickens," she said.
Holding a bowl of mixed veggies in her hands, Wheeler opens the door to one of the two insulated chicken dens in her backyard. Christmas lights drape the animals' "retirement home," as she calls it. A sign reads "Chick Inn," and the names of some of her beloved pets are engraved on a tin plaque hanging by the door.
It's lunch time, and while some of her 12 chickens freely roam their coop and peck at their food, others need to be fed with care.
"Ellie is our blind baby. He knows how to drag his beak along surfaces and that's how he figures out where his food is," she explains, petting a black and brown rooster.
Wheeler explained why some animals fall through the cracks and need a micro-sanctuary.
"They can't go to the Ottawa Humane Society. There's no human society for farm animals," she said. "So it's up to people like me and Craig and other rescues ... [to] give them a forever home."
She said it was a tough learning curve the past six months — from predator-proofing and getting electrical supply to the coops, to slowly integrating the chickens together so they don't hurt each other (some were adopted from the Montreal SPCA while others surrendered to the Wheelers just a month ago). But thanks to friends at the Sweet Sanctuary who are educating them gradually, Wheeler says they're excited for what's to come.
Looking at the remaining 11 hectares of her yard, Wheeler dreams of rescuing goats, pigs and turkeys in the coming years. Secondhand Stories will have to continue raising funds to build safe and warm infrastructure to house them, she says.
"[We're] cognizant of our capacity. Both Craig and I work full-time jobs," said Wheeler. "So we're going to keep things smaller, but our mission is going to be to provide a loving, forever home to abandoned, abused and neglected farm animals."
A 'no-brainer,' says supporter
Tara Lerer says she loves animals and reading. So when she saw a social media post about Secondhand Stories in 2021, she called it "a no-brainer" to support them.
"I've been buying books from her ever since," said Lerer.
Lerer said she's watched Wheeler's journey from afar and has nothing but admiration for her and the non-profit.
"It was pretty incredible. It just shows just what one person can do," she said. "I actually strive to be more like her."
Sitting by boxes of recently donated books inside her home, Wheeler reflects on their journey the past two years. She's sold about 5,000 books, and her donation pile now sits at about 2,500.
"It's really, honestly, it's been the greatest joy of my life. I have never been more proud of anything that I've been a part of," said Wheeler.
"Even one year ago, if I thought that we'd be here having our own sanctuary, I wouldn't have believed it."