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Florida Teen Opens Library for Homeless Youth

Fifteen-year-old Lilli Leight of Miami, Florida, has just won the National Book Foundation’s Innovations in Reading Prize for a two-part initative that began as a bat mitzvah project: a “giving library” that has provided thousands of books for children in a local homeless shelter, and a teen book club aptly named “iRead” to get others involved in this literacy project.

She told Lilith about how her social change work got started.

“Three years ago I started volunteering at Chapman Partnership, a local homeless shelter, initially my mitzvah project for my bat mitzvah. I worked in the Family Resource Center. When children finished their homework, all attention promptly turned to video games or television. I realized that there were no books available, and that no one ever thought to ask for a book.

“I developed what I like to refer to as a ‘reading ecosystem’ in my community. I began by collecting used books from friends, schools, and local organizations, and new books from my local bookstore, Books and Books, to amass an appealing ‘giving library’ at Chapman, with overflowing shelves, comfortable chairs and a carpet to read on. The number of books in the library depends on the number of children in the center who have taken books home with them. The children are allowed to take as many books with them as they like when they move out of the shelter. About 5,000 books have been donated to date.

“Stage Two consisted of my starting a teen book club, to provide my peers with opportunities to discuss books, meet authors ad colunteer at Chapman. Finally, as my high school and other schools learned more about my project, they encouraged their students to volunteer at Chapman as homework helpers. Most rewarding was my work with one first grader. She was reticent when I first began reading with her. She would select a book, which we rarely finished. However, when I next returned, she would always know exactly where we had left off. Finally, she began to read, proudly and voraciously; the world of books opened to her. While I’m only fifteen years old, this experience has made me feel empowered to help change the world – even if it is just one little girl at a time.”