Ashley Perry, 14, of Anchorage, Alaska, an eighth-grader at Mears Middle School, started a program that enables struggling young readers to build their skills and confidence by reading out loud to animals in shelters. She also places “blessing boxes” filled with nonperishable food, hygiene products and apparel items at Anchorage schools for students in need, arranges for celebrities to visit hospitalized children, and raises awareness of Turner syndrome. Ashley was born with this rare genetic disorder, which makes her prone to infections and has required 20 surgeries so far. In 2014, she was named Alaska’s Children’s Miracle Network Champion. “With that role, I quickly learned that I was put on this earth for a reason and I can make a difference despite my health issues,” said Ashley.
After hearing about a program in another state that paired young readers with animals awaiting adoption, Ashley decided Alaska needed something similar. “When I was younger, I hated to read out loud and I was afraid of making a mistake,” said Ashley. “If I could have read to an animal, I think I would have been more excited to read.” After selling her idea to local animal shelters, Ashley sent flyers to local schools and libraries to recruit young readers. Nine shelters in Alaska and 15 outside the state are now participating in her reading program. To launch her “blessing boxes,” Ashley made a presentation to all of the principals in her school district, then asked homebuilders to help construct the boxes and urged friends and community members to donate supplies. Forty-five schools in the Anchorage area have now agreed to host one of Ashley’s boxes.