Inside Chapman Partnership, a Miami-Dade nonprofit dedicated to supporting and rebuilding the lives of the city’s homeless, there is a library of 5,000 books. The library is the result of nearly three years of work by Lilli Leight, now 15 years old; her efforts were honored this month when she was named one of the winners of the Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation.
Leight began volunteering at Chapman when she was 13, working in the Family Resource Center with school-age children after school and on weekends. “I helped the children with their homework; we played games, and shared in many conversations about life and school,” said Leight. “But I noticed that when they finished their homework all attention promptly turned to video games or television. I realized that there were no books available to the children, and that no one ever thought to ask for a book.”
From there, the idea of the library (which Leight calls “a reading ecosystem”) was born. “My goal was to help the Chapman children develop a love of reading and further foster my peers’ interest in reading,” Leight told PW. She began by collecting used books from friends, schools, and local organizations, as well as new books from her local bookstore, Books & Books, in Coral Gables. In exchange for the donations, Leight wrote shelf-talkers for Books & Books. At the same time her donations were beginning to roll in, Leight started iRead, a teen book club for her friends and other students that provided them with opportunities to meet authors and volunteer at Chapman. Soon, high schools in the area heard about Leight’s project and started encouraging their students to volunteer at Chapman as homework helpers.
“Lilli is a most impressive young lady,” said Trev Flowers, Chapman’s community relations director. “She has a beautiful and giving heart.” Chapman, a private sector partner of the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, assists the homeless with medical and dental care, mental health services, case management, job training, and child care. In the last category, Flowers said, Chapman has between 40 and 70 school-age children every day, and that the books they had access to before Leight’s library were very worn. “The children were always looking forward to seeing her. She still comes to the center and shows how much she cares about the children living here by reading and sharing with them.” When they move out of the shelter, the children are allowed to take as many books with them as they’d like.
When she heard she won the Innovations in Reading Prize, Leight said she was “really, really surprised. I feel incredibly empowered and happy that the library was selected and look forward to seeing it grow. Hopefully, [it will] inspire other people to start their own project in their community.”
Leight, who quoted Thomas Jefferson’s famous “I cannot live without books” in her interview with PW, said her favorite books are A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Gone with the Wind. And when she gets older, she wants to work in publishing.