President Obama and Young Americans

For the Win: Sharing a Love of Reading

For the Win is a guest blog series featuring the remarkable initiatives that young Americans are advancing to win the future for their communities. Each week we highlight a new young person and learn about their inspiring work through their own words.

Mary-Grace Reeves is a senior at Pensacola High School in Pensacola, Fl. and is the founder of The American Girl Book Club.  In her free time, Mary-Grace serves as the captain of her high school math team and studies ballet. She is a member of the of the 2011 PARADE All-America High School Service Team, an award recognizing outstanding young service leaders presented by PARADE Magazine in partnership with generationOn, the global youth service division of Points of Light Institute.

In 2004, my community of Pensacola, Fla. was changed forever when Hurricane Ivan devastated homes and businesses. Recovery from this natural disaster has been a long process. Even today, some homes have still not been rebuilt.

In light of this devastation, I wanted to do something to help my community, and at age 13, with my interest in literature, I found my niche as a volunteer in the children’s department of the local library. Ever since I was very young, I have found great joy in reading. While volunteering, I noticed that the library had a reading program during the school year for preschool readers, but not for older youth. Reading, like any skill, must be practiced to be improved. I wanted to create a reading program specifically for girls living in the Gulf Coast region between the ages of 7-12. When the manager of the children’s department of the library sadly explained that they lacked the funds or the employees to assist me, I persevered to make my idea a reality.

This is when I created The American Girl Book Club, a historical literacy program through which I help girls improve their reading skills, teach them about our country’s history, and encourage youth volunteerism. Three years later, through 37 monthly programs that have reached more than 800 girls, I continue to bring history to life. Through grants from the National Education Association, Target Corporation, Youth Service America, and a local nonprofit organization, I provide each attendee with a copy of the American Girl “book of the month”.  After the meetings, I bring the books to girls at the Ronald McDonald House and the Gulf Coast Kid’s House, an organization that serves abused children and their families. While these girls cannot currently attend program meetings, they are just as interested in the adventures of the American Girl characters. I invite guest speakers each month, relating to the discussed American Girl historical character, including the Daughters of the American Revolution for a study on Colonial Williamsburg, Asian-American women for the Chinese New Year celebration, and a marine biologist from the University of Florida when we studied the endangered species of the Gulf Coast.

While each of the American Girl books relates to a girl in the past, I connect the stories to the present. By leading these young girls in volunteer activities to benefit the community, I am preparing them to be the leaders of the future! Working with these youth, I have created food drives, book drives, a Global Youth Service Day project, environmental awareness programs, a sea life conservation program in partnership with the University of Florida, patriotic memorials for the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, and much more. As we discuss the sacrifices American Girl, Molly makes on the home front of World War II, through her “Lend A Hand” project, the girls of the Gulf Coast learn how they, too, can make a difference in their own community.

Through diverse outreach literacy programs, I have worked with more than 900 girls from across the Gulf Coast Region. In May of 2011, I was invited by the Department of Defense to speak to more than 1,500 servicemen and women at the Center for Information Dominance’s Annual Cultural Diversity Day, representing the category of youth. I was touched to speak with these members of our armed forces. As I advocated a message of youth literacy, I realized this will have a global impact as these men and women defend our country in locations throughout the world. I love to see the excited faces of the girls with whom I work, as they express their interest in reading. I know that the reading skills these girls are developing through the American Girl Book Club will serve them for life! I look forward to expanding the American Girl Book Club, as I make it a part of my future college community. You too can make a difference taking time today to read with a child.

Ronnie Cho is an Associate Director at the White House Office of Public Engagement.

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