There is no better place to escape the real word than a good book, and Nikki Leali hopes to encourage other New Orleans children to love reading just as much as she does.
Nikki, 13, a seventh-grade student at Ursuline Academy, is the founder of Crescent City Reading Buddies, a book club that meets monthly at the Rosa F. Keller Library and Community Center. Children ages 2-9 take turns reading with or are read to by teen volunteers like Nikki who also treat them to an arts and craft project.
“She’s always been an avid reader,” says Joelle Leali, Nikki’s mom. “She just loves to talk about books with anyone anytime.”
Nikki moved forward with Crescent City Reading Buddies about a year ago. She had just been recognized as a state middle school Prudential Spirit of Community Award honoree for her work organizing annual book drives and for starting a Little Free Library — a community book exchange program — in front of her house when she was just 6 years old.
After receiving Prudential’s award, and seeing the work of other community servants, she knew she wanted to do more. “I was really inspired to keep going and bring reading further into my community,” Nikki says.
Many youngsters in the community don’t have the same access to books that she has, says Nikki, who also volunteers with the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library alongside her mentor, New Orleans literacy advocate Linda Prout. “It really broke my heart to see so much illiteracy in my city,” she says.
On the first Tuesday of each month, Crescent City Reading Buddies meets in the library’s children’s room from 4-5 p.m. Each month’s reading materials and craft project has a different theme. Prior registration is not necessary and participants will visit different reading stations, earn stickers, and have the chance to earn a free Raising Cane’s meal.
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Currently, Nikki is searching for more youth volunteers who are willing to read to younger children. “Reading builds character,” Nikki says, who lists “The Red Queen,” series by Victoria Aveyard, “The Hunger Games” series by Suzanne Collins, and the “Divergent” series by Veronica Roth, as some of her favorite books.
“When you get out in the big, real world, you might not understand something and you can use your knowledge of reading and what you read to know what’s going on. It gives you background knowledge for daily life.” Nikki’s mother wants other kids to know they, too, can be as empowered as her daughter is no matter their passion. “Nikki is so passionate and dedicated, but every kid can be,” she says.
In the future, Nikki plans on attending college while continuing her service projects. For more information or to volunteer, visit nolareadingclub.com.
Kate Stevens is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Nola Family.