The visionary behind nonprofit Empowered Readers Literacy Project is a little girl with a big empathetic heart. Parkside Elementary School first grader Selah Thompson saw classmates struggling last year with their ABCs and sight words. She knew she needed to do something and asked her parents to help her.
“Every kid deserves to read is what I always say,” Selah said. “I can’t stop saying it!”
Over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, Selah and her parents launched the new nonprofit at the inaugural “March to 20Hundred Thousand Books: A Children’s March for Literacy.” That’s two million books, if you do the math.
“Despite the weather, we had about 370 people and collected 3,100 books,” Selah’s father, Khalil M. Thompson, said. “We wanted the kids to be smiling by the end, and that’s exactly what happened.”
Festivities began at Georgia State Stadium, where children created signs, banners, and did other reading activities alongside sponsors like Chick-fil-A Foundation, Public Broadcasting Atlanta, King of Pops, and more.
“Children were given a graphic book template to interpret and tell their own story. They loved it,” Khalil said.
Then, the Atlanta Drum Academy children led the march a half-mile through southeast Atlanta to the former Georgia Hill Library on Georgia Avenue in Grant Park. There Selah and her friends installed the nonprofit’s first three Little Free Libraries: one shaped like a treasure chest for children’s books, one for young adult books and one for adult books. Students at Selah’s school as well as from Dunbar Elementary and Barack and Michelle Obama Academy decorated them in advance.
“When we unveiled those libraries the kids were so excited,” Khalil said.
In 2019, Empowered Readers seeks to plant 23 more sets of Little Free Llibraries in the city’s underserved neighborhoods and collect about 7,000 more books. All because of a conversation on Selah’s first day of kindergarten.
“She was upset. She told us ‘some of my new friends don’t know their sight words, their ABCs, how to read or spell their name.’ She didn’t understand why,” Khalil recalled.
The Thompsons seized the teachable moment and explained that everybody’s circumstance is different. Some parents aren’t home during story time because they have multiple jobs. Maybe they don’t know how to read, weren’t read to as children or just don’t have books in their homes.
“She looked at us and said, ‘We need to help’,” Khalil said.
“Her empathy didn’t come out of the blue. She always wants to make sandwiches for the homeless or give away her favorite toys at Christmas. When Selah recognized that there was a problem, she challenged us to help her and we started our nonprofit to do just that,” Selah’s mother, Nicole E. Thompson, said.
The research shocked them. Nationally, two-thirds of students who cannot read by 4th grade end up in jail or on welfare. And more than two-thirds of APS students cannot read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade.
“As a kindergarten teacher, I see first-hand the gaps between students who have access to literature before entering my classroom and those who do not,” Selah’s kindergarten teacher Aleara Lofton said.
The Thompson’s own pediatrician suggested that they go beyond solely giving books, but find a way to engage the whole family because reading is a learned behavior. Literacy is a complex process that starts at birth and requires family and community connection – this would be the basis for Empowered Readers.
Last August, the Thompsons pitched their launch concept, “March to 20Hundred Thousand Books,” at an ideas challenge hosted by Plywood People, a group that helps start and sustain projects doing good.
“Khalil and Nicole balance optimism with hard work. Every day they are hustling to get books in the hands of our future leaders of Atlanta,” Plywood People executive director Jeff Shinabarger said.
It was a figurative march until Selah heard the pitch.
“We should make it a children’s march and actually march,” Selah told her parents. The children’s march is now an annual event, empowering children to speak up for themselves and bond around reading.
“The energy was infectious – the kids loved marching and putting their hands on the books. Parents keep contacting us saying the kids keep running to the library to get books out. It’s been amazing,” Khalil said.
The next Little Free Libraries installation is scheduled for late March in the Vine City community. Empowered Readers will team up with Westside Future Fund, the YMCA and Young Authors Publishing, an organization that publishes books by children and places proceeds into a college fund. You will be able to find a copy of “Roxy’s Day in Vine City,” written by neighborhood kids, in the children’s treasure chest library.
For more information visit empoweredreaders.org.