Florida Teen Starts 'Giving Library' for Homeless Kids

Miami-area teen Lilli Leight decided to do something about the lack of books for homeless kids in her community.

There’s nothing like curling up in bed with a good book before you go to sleep, but far too many low-income kids don’t know what that’s like. Two-thirds of poor children have no age-appropriate books at home, and the nation's 1.6 million homeless children have even fewer options.

Fifteen-year-old Florida resident Lilli Leight wanted to help provide homeless kids in her community with access to books, so she created a "giving library" at a Miami homeless shelter. To staff the library, she formed a teen book club to encourage her classmates to volunteer. Her effort won her the National Book Foundation's Innovations in Reading prize, which recognizes individuals and institutions for developing ways of instilling a lifelong love of reading.

Leight began volunteering three years ago at the nonprofit Chapman Partnership shelter, and she quickly noticed that after students there finished their homework, they'd turn on the shelter's television instead of cracking a book like she did at home. The kids didn’t even think to ask for a book, she found, because they were so used to not having any around.

A lack of access to books has long-term effects on kids, research shows—several studies indicate that availability of reading materials is a stronger predictor of future academic achievement than socioeconomic status. In Leight's home state, less than 25 percent of homeless children graduate from high school.

To build the library, Leight began collecting donated new and used books from friends, schools, community organizations, and local bookstores. The effort was so successful that the shelter’s library now has multiple books for every child. And when families are back on their feet and able to leave the shelter, they're invited take as many books with them as they want. Leight's book club, called iRead, provides a place for teens from area high schools to get together to discuss books, meet authors, and volunteer at Chapman as homework helpers.

Leight told the National Book Foundation that her project has made her "feel empowered to help change the world―even if it is just one child at a time." Thanks to her, more kids in tough economic situations have the opportunity to fall in love with a book.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Hermionish

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