The gift of reading: 16-year-old Maria Keller is distributing 2 million books to at-risk youth

Maria Keller
Maria Keller, 16, is in the process of collecting and distributing 2 million books to at-risk youth throughout the world in an effort to promote literacy. She started her nonprofit, Read Indeed, when she was 8 years old.
(Staff photo)

Books were part of Maria Keller’s life before she was even born.

“It’s amazing how important reading is and [how] effective it is as a way to grow academically and become a better student.” – Maria Keller

While pregnant, Keller’s mother, Maura, used to read to her not-yet- born daughter while Keller was still in her stomach. By the time she was a young child, Keller was surrounded with books.

Now 16, Keller is striving to surround other children around the world with books, too.

At age 8, Keller started Read Indeed, a nonprofit that distributes books to at-risk kids around the world in an effort to promote literacy. Her initial goal was to spread 1 million books across the world before she was 18, and she reached that goal before age 13. Now, Keller plans to donate 2 million books to at-risk kids in all 50 states and every country in the world.

“It’s amazing how important reading is,” Keller said, “and [how] effective it is as a way to grow academically and become a better student.”

Reading helps children develop greater understanding in different subjects in school, and children who read regularly have better relationships with their parents, higher self-esteem and a more positive attitude toward school, according to Read Indeed’s website.

One in four U.S. children grows up not knowing how to read, which has a host of negative effects, statistics show. For example, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare, according to Begin to Read.

The idea began after a book drive in Keller’s church when she was 8. Keller realized that books were something not all kids around the world had access to, so soon after, she started a book drive of her own.

After the books were collected and donated, Keller declared one night at the dinner table that she wanted another book drive. But this time, the goal was 1 million books.

Her mother, Maura, wanted to support Keller, but also was completely “stunned,” she said.

“And so we tried to immediately say, ‘Of course sweetie,’” Maura Keller said, “but in the back of

my mind I thought, ‘It’s a cute little idea, it’ll fizzle out in about a month, two months when she gets tired of it.’”

But then word spread, first to the principal at Maria’s school and then to KARE 11, which featured Maria and her efforts to reach her goal.

“All of a sudden we had complete strangers coming to our door in Plymouth, knocking, saying, ‘Is this where the book girl lives? I have two bags of books for you,’” Maura said. “… Within about three months, she had 60,000 books in her garage.”

That garage is not where they store books anymore. Read Indeed keeps the books sorted in a warehouse in Hopkins, a place big enough to contain 100,000 books at one point.

Read Indeed, which was started after Maria made her declaration at 8 years old, has donated more than $4 million in books. Her work has been mentioned on “Good News” with Ellen DeGeneres and she was one of two students in the nation to receive a Jefferson Award in 2014.

On two days a month, Read Indeed opens up the warehouse for people who want to donate books, including some who held their own book drives. From there, volunteers count and sort books and get them ready to be shipped.

Read Indeed ships books to those in need throughout the Twin Cities and partners with organizations who travel to places outside the U.S. to take books with them on over- seas trips. Organizations, schools and teachers also can come in on warehouse days to pick up books for children.

Maria’s work with Read Indeed has impacted Twin Cities schools such as Hmong College Prep Academy in St. Paul.

Once a month, the school collects hundreds of books in boxes from the warehouse. The books are used for events such as family nights and literacy nights, in which families can leave with free books to take home, according to Aemillianna Thao, operations manager at Hmong College Prep Academy.

“I have to say that Read Indeed has seriously, tremendously made an impact to our school,” said Thao, who also said parents participate more in their children’s reading because they get to take home free books.

During the first years of Read Indeed, Maura noticed the volunteers who came were mostly children. So Read Indeed created a Youth Advisory Council, which is made up of students ages 12 to 17, who build skills such as fundraising, researching and leadership, according to Read Indeed’s website.

Several students at Maria’s school, Orono High School, are involved in the Youth Advisory Council.

“They are very supportive and that’s really cool that they get involved,” Maria said.

In many ways, Maria is still like every other teenager: she stresses out about ACTs, takes AP classes, tries to do her best in school and likes spending her time with friends and family. But the difference is she has to balance her time as the founder and chair of a nonprofit. Her biggest supporter is her mom, she said.

“… Sometimes I’m overwhelmed with the abnormality of Read Indeed and the project itself,” Maria said, “but she’s always there to keep me grounded and directed, and she’s really supportive.”

Maria plans to continue her work at Read Indeed during high school and keep working toward her goal. As of Nov. 21, she was at 1,996,455 books.

“If somebody said … almost eight years ago, that Maria would be running a nonprofit [and] she’s almost to 2 million books, I would just laugh, like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Maura said. “But here we are.”