Read Indeed: Reflections on an 8-Year-Old’s Commitment to Providing Literacy Opportunities to Children in Need

Maria Keller, Founder, Read Indeed

I grabbed a stack of books and walked briskly around to the “to be sorted” section of the warehouse. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a teacher entering through the main doors. She had come to the warehouse a few times in the last six months, so I instantly recognized her. She was a reading specialist at an inner-city school populated primarily by refugees. When I went over to greet her, she embraced me and gave me a necklace that she had made herself. Moved to tears, she explained to me how much her kids loved the books they had received, and how many of them had never previously owned a book.

In the spring of 2009, I founded Read Indeed—a literacy nonprofit dedicated to gifting books to kids in need. I was eight at the time, about to turn nine. I had always loved to read and was fortunate enough to have had books in my home. My mother is a freelance writer and editor, so she often receives books for free. My parents always encouraged me to read, and to love reading and learning.

Read Indeed started with a single book drive at my elementary school. I collected 6,000 books over a few weeks, and donated the books to St. Joseph’s Home for Children. After waiting a few weeks, I declared to my parents that I wanted to collect and distribute one million books to kids in need by the time I turn 18. My parents were surprised, but they did not dismiss my proclamation as some parents might do. They encouraged me from the very beginning, and have consistently inspired me to become a better leader and a better person.

My story was a perfect inspirational piece for the evening news, so I received media attention within a couple of months of my initial declaration. People began to drop off books anonymously at my home, which I found encouraging although my parents became slightly concerned about issues of storage. One of the most practical lessons Read Indeed has taught me is an understanding of the vast power of the media to build and to transform. The media attention not only spread the word about my efforts, it also established a sense of legitimacy to what had once been a mere flicker in the corner of my mind. Many people ask me if I ever would have imagined what Read Indeed would become. Of course not. Read Indeed has been a whirlwind of practically insurmountable challenges, unprecedented energy and generosity from my community, and more than my fair share of surprises—both good and bad.

The first summer after I made that initial declaration brought two significant opportunities. The first surprise was a donation of over 40,000 brand new books from A Child’s World, a publisher in my home state of Minnesota. I learned that my parents’ two-car garage holds exactly 40,000 books. As not being able to park in one’s own garage during a Minnesotan winter can be a problem, we eventually found a warehouse space that remains the center of our operations today. The second opportunity was a partnership with BMO Harris Bank, which was M&I Bank at the time. Through our partnership with BMO, we held a book drive every summer for seven years, collecting approximately 650,000 books in total. With commercials running every summer, and relatively significant media attention throughout the rest of the year, my mission became well-known in my local community and we began connecting with a global community of bookworms like me.

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Read Indeed has sent books to all 50 states and 17 countries. Shipping costs remain a problem, but we have found a few clever ways to avoid such expenses. I regularly work with individuals and groups traveling around the world, particularly groups going on mission trips. I ask them to check an extra suitcase and stuff it with as many paperback books as they can. I also try to limit the transportation of books altogether by working with local groups who organize book drives to distribute those books in their own communities rather than shipping books to us.

Over the course of only 8 years, Read Indeed has grown from a couple of bags of books in my parents’ dining room to a massive, international effort dedicated to changing the world one book at a time. Since declaring my goal in 2009, I have gifted over 2.4 million books to kids in need. But Read Indeed has only existed through the generosity and the passion of the community. I have had the incredible opportunity to harness the energy of a community already ardent in their commitment to literacy and education.

Read Indeed is hosting a “Once Upon a Time” Gala for Literacy on May 19, the anniversary of my original goal. The gala will be held to raise funds for purchasing books for $1 or less each, to gift to disadvantaged children. Children’s Champion Sponsorships start at $25. If you are interested in connecting with me and becoming a sponsor of our gala, contact me at maria@readindeed.org.

 

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