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State Honoree

Nikki Leali

New Orleans, Louisiana

Nikki Leali, 13, of New Orleans, La., a seventh-grader at Ursuline Academy, organized a reading club that brings middle level students together with younger children once a month to read and work on craft projects, after conducting an annual book donation and swap drive for several years that redistributed more than 55,000 books in her community. When she was 6, Nikki won a small city grant to host a neighborhood book exchange in conjunction with the national Little Free Library initiative. Each year, she continued to collect and give away books to encourage reading and literacy, and eventually became a volunteer at the New Orleans Public Library, too. While volunteering one Saturday in 2017, Nikki came up with the idea of starting a reading club to “provide opportunities for younger children to feel confident reading in a safe and fun environment,” she explained, “and to encourage middle school students to serve their community.”

Nikki recruited fellow middle schoolers to join her club, and invited kids from ages 2 to 9 to come to monthly gatherings through social media. At first, she held meetings of her “Crescent City Reading Buddies” club at places like pet stores and coffee shops, but then found a regular home at a library branch. Each meeting features a different theme and a hands-on craft project, in addition to reading time. Attendance was meager at first, but now that Nikki has created a website and provides incentives from corporate sponsors, between 15 and 30 children are regularly attending club meetings. She hopes to eventually hold club meetings at additional library branches around the city.