What do you get when you combine a passion for reading, empathy for those less fortunate than yourself, and awareness that you’re part of a global community? You get Maria Keller, a 14-year old member of GenerationZ. She’s on a mission to provide books for children who don’t have access to them, and a lot of people are starting to take notice, including CNN, which named her one of its "Young Heroes" in 2014.
Maria started pursuing her goal when she was only eight years old. She founded Read Indeed, a non-profit that gathers and distributes books to at-risk children. Six years later, Read Indeed’s accomplishments include the words “global” and “millions.” And Maria is just getting started! By the time she turns 18, she intends to provide books to children in “every state in the U.S. and every country in the world!”
Maria embodies so many of the wonderful qualities attributed to GenerationZ. She’s compassionate, altruistic, practical, a self-starter and, obviously, a talented problem-solver. But don’t take my word for it. Here are Maria’s answers, in her own words, to some questions I recently posed about her generation, her goals, and how she has managed, at such a young age, to provide assistance to so many of her peers:
Read Indeed seems to be very organized. How did you create your infrastructure (the Board of Directors, Youth Advisory Council, individuals who help with various tasks, warehouse, etc.)?
Frankly, I learned along the way what would work to keep everything organized and working well. Plus my parents have helped in terms of the legality issues of a 501c3. I have a lot of young kids/teens who want to help, so I created a youth board to give some of them a bigger voice in the organization. The adult board is needed to help give me direction and brainstorm new ideas to grow Read Indeed.
Was there a moment - or a particular book you were reading - that made you say: “I need to provide books to other kids.” If so, what was it about that book that inspired you?
I've always loved to read. And I realized when I was in 3rd grade that some kids didn't read as much as me. I would try and stay in from recess so that I could read on the beanbag chairs in my classroom. Not a lot of kids wanted to do that. I went to a grade school where most kids had plenty of books in their homes, so when I learned there were a lot of kids in low income neighborhoods who had never owned a book or had a bedtime story read to them, I was simply amazed and thought that it simply wasn't fair. I began researching and learned how important reading is in terms of a child's success in school. When I learned this, I knew I needed to do something about this issue.
Have you done much public speaking? Who invites you the most?
I have done quite a bit of public speaking. I speak at different schools about the importance of reading to kids, and I've spoken at churches, and community groups such at Rotary Club meetings, etc.
Tell me about the experience of sending books to kids in other countries. For example, how do you identify the people you send books to outside the U.S.?
Typically we receive applications from groups/organizations in need of books. Based on those applications, I determine the validity of the organization and their great need of books. Because shipping is so unbelievably expensive, I've tried to partner with different groups, piggybacking on their shipment of goods, to get the books to these groups. Sometimes we have to say 'no' simply because it is too expensive to ship if we don't have a partner in their region.
How many books do you need to meet your goal of contributing to every state and every country by the time you are 18?
I'm striving for a next goal of 2 million books. It's not so much about how many books, but the appropriate books. Some organizations only request 1 book per child, others want more.
You clearly have a global vision for Read Indeed. What’s the connection you feel to children in other countries?
The literacy rate is extraordinarily poor in many nations. I would love to help connect these children to books. Many of these kids suffer unbearable living situations, hindering their ability to go to school. Books can help these children find an escape and better their lives.
A lot of people want to create something like Read Indeed, but might not know how to get started. What advice would you give them?
Take it slow. Do your research. And don't be afraid to ask for help. So many people in this world are good, kind, giving people and will be willing to help in whatever way they can. The key is to ask.
Tell me about your generation. What kind of impact do they want to have on the world? What kind of lives do you think they want to live? What do you think they feel are the biggest challenges that need solving in the world?
I see a lot of my peers at Orono High School interested in giving back to others. They are sincere about doing so. They aren't doing it to get another line item on their college resume. They truly see the world as a place that needs our help. We are the generation that can truly make an impact on this world.
If people want to get involved with Reed Indeed, what should they do?
We are always in need of monetary donations to help buy brand new books for kids. They can also hold gently used book drives in their communities. If they don't live in the Twin Cities, I can help them find organizations in their own communities that need the books.
What's the best (most positive) feedback you've gotten from someone who has received books from Reed Indeed?
I receive lots of thank you notes from children who receive books. One little girl wrote: "I want to be just like you when I grow up." It doesn't get much more honorable than that.