Julia Foos transformed her family’s basement into a warehouse to organize the thousands of books she donates to others.
A voracious passion for reading has inspired a local teenager to accomplish an astounding feat of community service that is enriching the lives of underprivileged children.
Julia Foos, a 17-year-old high school student, has single-handedly collected and donated more than 25,000 new and gently used books to kids throughout Northeast Ohio.
She has directed 10,000 of those books to United Way of Greater Cleveland’s Stuff The Bus initiative.
We sat down with Julia to learn more about what motivates her to devote so much effort to help others.
I collect new and gently used books mostly from businesses. I originally collected them just from family and family friends, but it’s grown over the years, a lot of it through word-of-mouth. Now, I get random messages on Facebook, ‘do you still need books for me to donate, I can donate them’. Usually I sort them by age and reading level. I have the board books for the little kids and picture books, and small chapter books and bigger chapter books. And then usually I make my parents help me carry the giant boxes out to the car (laughing). And the entire operation is located in the basement of our home. It’s worked for us.
I’ve always been reading; it’s always something that I’ve done. Actually, when I was little the only way my parents could punish me was to ground me from reading on the car ride home. Because that was the only punishment I would listen to. So, reading’s always been something I’ve just been really, really passionate about and I hope I can give other kids the opportunity to be passionate about it too, especially if they don’t have access to books. I can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like without access to a library.
For me personally, when I’m in school I don’t have a ton of time to read. Not as much as I like because I have so much work to do. Summer is the time I actually tend to catch up on my reading. I like giving more kids that option, too, because I know most kids during the school year are focused on the books they have to read for school and maybe don’t get as much time to read for pleasure. And I think that’s really important to me—that I get to read what I want whenever I want. I know when I read during the summer, I may not be reading about school subjects, but I’m still learning about new things and gaining new ideas, and I hope I can pass that along to other kids.
It just makes me feel really good to give kids the opportunity to read and learn, because I know that my life would have been very different if I hadn’t had those opportunities. Mentally, it really makes me feel good and rewarded. I would encourage anybody to find something they’re passionate about and see what kind of impact they can make. It’s amazing what one person can do.
Julia was recently featured on News Channel 5 Cleveland (WEWS)
Watch her story here:
Book Lover and Youth Philanthropist
Quick Facts –
Hathaway Brown School
Lives with her parents, Heather and Kevin, a sister, Ava, and dogs Pippa and Tacy in Avon Lake.
How much does she love books?
When Julia was 7-years-old, her library card was declined because she was over the 75-book limit.
Why did she start a book drive?
Was shocked, then inspired, after reading an article about how many kids in Cleveland don’t have access to books at home. Also hopes her efforts will eventually help reduce the city’s 61 percent adult illiteracy rate.
Who do you donate them to?
United Way of Greater Cleveland, Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank, and others.
(besides reading a lot) Crafts, including knitting and sewing, and entertaining her dogs.
Heading off to college in the fall, where she intends to major in English and/or pursue a path in pre-med. She hopes to collect an additional 10,000 books before classes start.
All she wanted was to be in school, learning new things with other kids her age. Instead, troubling family circumstances forced Teresa to assume the responsibilities of a parent when she was still just a child herself.
“At 9 years old I had to be mom to four kids,” she explained through tears, recounting why the burden fell on her shoulders.
With an alcoholic mother incapable of adequately caring for a family and an abusive stepfather, there seemed to be no choice.
“I couldn’t leave my brothers and sisters alone to go to school. And if I didn’t get them to school and make sure they got their homework done and they had baths and they had food, no one else did. I had to protect them.”
“I was never given an opportunity to go to high school. And I love school. I do well in school. I love to learn,” said Teresa, who recently earned her GED from Seeds of Literacy.
The responsibilities thrust upon her at home only grew with time. The sacrifice became permanent.
“I was never given an opportunity to go to high school,” she said. “And I love school. I do well in school. I love to learn.”
Planting a seed
Years later, that love of learning led Teresa to a place where adults without diplomas get a second chance.
“Seeds of Literacy is amazing,” are words she chose to describe the United Way-funded organization that has helped thousands of Cleveland-area residents living in poverty achieve their high school equivalency.
Teresa recently passed all her subject tests at Seeds of Literacy to finish her GED after a combined seven months of tutoring and hard work.
“When I got my results after opening my email it felt amazing. It felt like the weight of the world was lifted off my shoulders. I could breathe,” she said.
For more than 20 years, Seeds of Literacy has provided free, one-to-one instruction that prepares adult students to advance their education, with the ultimate goal of financial stability.
And the need to advance educational opportunities in our region is great, as is financial stability — both United Way core impact areas, alongside health and basic needs.
According to Seeds of Literacy, nearly two-in-three adults residing in Cleveland are functionally illiterate, and 88 percent of the agency’s students live at or below federal poverty guidelines.
A blossoming future
For Teresa, earning a GED enabled her to meet the requirements of a local employer, where she now works in a job she loves. The accomplishment, according to her tutor, could also be viewed favorably by a judge in a legal battle to regain custody of her 9-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son. She also aspires to eventually go to college and study engineering.
Teresa told us she’s grateful and encourages others to support programs that provide opportunities for adults to complete their schooling.
“Donating to United Way of Greater Cleveland is extremely important because if people don’t put other people first, other people can’t become stable enough to do it on their own,” she said. “And that is my final goal. Becoming stable enough to do it on my own and stand on my own two feet.”
Watch and listen to Teresa’s experience and transformation at Seeds of Literacy below.
Watch Teresa’s Video
It was clear that this wasn’t going to be a typical night at the theater.
This was apparent when the entire cast stepped into the audience, passed out $1,000 in cash, and asked every person in the crowd to choose how to best spend that money in the fight against poverty.
Certainly not when the plot demands audience members passionately express their deeply held opinions about the problem with strangers in the next row.
But a show entitled “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes” reveals, by name alone, its monumental ambition. This aspiration is precisely why United Way of Greater Cleveland decided to help bring the nationally acclaimed production to Northeast Ohio.
“This innovative play challenges common assumptions about the faces of poverty and how people fall into desperate circumstances,” said August Napoli, president and CEO of United Way of Greater Cleveland. “We wanted to shatter those stereotypes and strip away preconceived notions, and I think this powerful production does just that.”
“Those of us who have had a lot of opportunity in our lives don’t even think about how the basic things that we take for granted are enormous challenges for people in poverty.”
– August Napoli, president & CEO, United Way of Greater Cleveland
United Way sponsored last month’s six-performance run of “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes” at Cleveland Public Theatre after Executive Artistic Director Raymond Bobgan proposed the two organizations collaborate on the venture.
“For a long time I’ve been wanting to bring this play to Cleveland but I couldn’t quite figure out the right partners,” said Bobgan. “And it was just so exciting to have United Way of Greater Cleveland step up.”
All shows sold out, including a matinee reserved exclusively for local high school students from a variety of schools in the community.
What is the play about?
The production unfolded in a fast-paced fusion of traditional and non-traditional theatrical elements, mostly on stage, but sometimes moving into the audience.
Among the most powerful scenes are vignettes in which actors portray everyday people struggling with hunger, low wages, racism and violent crime. Other jarring moments played out in just a few searing lines of debate between characters.
Interpretive dances and a musical number became tactics to creatively examine common notions about poverty. One of these notions included the long-held American ideal that it’s more admirable to “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” instead of asking for help.
One scene transformed the theater into a social-activism quiz show, with audience members asked to stand front-and-center while answering multiple-choice questions about the demographics of poverty. The information appears on large video screens, while the crowd shouts out suggestions.
At other points throughout the performance, backstage interviews with special guests were broadcast live onto the screens.
What does the play do to help people?
The crux of “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes” is the climactic decision the audience is asked to make at the finale of every show. They are asked to vote on how to best allocate $1,000 from ticket sales and United Way-support to combat local poverty.
The money must be directed toward one of five anti-poverty strategies: daily needs, making opportunities, system change, education or direct aid. A United Way-funded agency within the randomly selected winning category received the donation.
Cast members steered the decision-making process by leaving the stage to interact with their designated audience sections. The performers served as town-hall discussion leaders, encouraging lively conversations about priorities and the best way to help others, urging audience members to keep in mind what they may have learned throughout the show.
“We are not so arrogant as to decide for the people where they should contribute,” Napoli pointed out. “Our job is to show the impact, make the case, and then get out of the way.”
United Way of Greater Cleveland Board Chairman Marc Byrnes attended opening night and is confident the project will have a lasting impact.
“Leveraging the arts to share a critical social issue as pressing as poverty is an incredibly exciting way to expand beyond our workplace campaign,” Byrnes said. “We believe this play will motivate people throughout our community to have a productive dialogue and become more active in overcoming the increasing barriers poverty has on so many individuals and families in Cuyahoga County.”
The show’s full title is “How to End Poverty in 90 Minutes (with 119 people you may or may not know).”
“Cleveland is a logical stop because it is an incredible American city with history of greatness and challenge, like many other American cities,” explained Rohd, who expressed gratitude to United Way for sponsoring the play and to Cleveland Public Theatre for extending the invitation to have it produced here.
United Way leaders are eager to further explore ways to collaborate with arts organizations to generate more awareness, volunteerism and philanthropy in the battle against poverty.
“People have been talking about the intersection of the arts and social justice to transform lives and communities for a long time,” Napoli said. “It’s important to move beyond simply talking about it – and this collaboration is actually doing it – and breaking ground.”
The Young Leaders cabinet debuted the latest installment of their Readers Become Leaders room at Harrison Elementary School in Lakewood on Dec. 1.
The funding to install this room came from funds raised at Fall Ball. This yearly event is a collaboration with United Way of Greater Cleveland’s Community Impact department and a donation from the Cleveland Kid’s Book Bank.
The Harrison Elementary site is the third reading room installment, with one already in existence at Superior Elementary and Thoreau Park. The Readers Become Leaders’ program is slowly becoming a favorite event among the Young Leaders’ cabinet. “The looks on the kids’ faces is what makes it so worthwhile,” said Bill Donatone, co-chair of the Young Leaders’ cabinet. Allison Taller Reich, Young Leaders’ co-chair added, “It’s also hilarious when they enjoy us reading to them and they engage in the story!”
Students from kindergarten to second grade visited the room for the first time on opening day since it’s been recreated with new books, furniture, decorations and more to make it as comfortable and exciting a learning environment as possible. The cabinet members read to the students and each student received a bookbag with books, a coloring book and crayons to take home. According to Sabrina Crawford, principal at Harrison, the bags were a hit. “Many of the students wanted to walk around with their bags on all day,” she noted.
The room is important for students because “they don’t see it as a place where they have to go, but a place they can choose to go to,” said Mrs. Crawford. “Now they [the students] have a special place that is a very comfortable, relaxed space where they can come read to one another, go in place of recess… they are excited about earning time in the room.”
The school also nominated fifth graders as “reading ambassadors” who will help keep the room organized and act as room assistants with students from younger grades.
Cleveland.com recently began a new series called “A Greater Cleveland,” highlighting the issue of generational poverty. The first article focused on children living in King Kennedy, a public housing complex on Cleveland’s east side. Kids growing up in poverty, like the kids in these articles, may not have access to healthy food, safe places to play, or high-quality educational opportunities. They may also face violence; sometimes on the streets and sometimes in their own homes.
More than 50 percent of kids in Cleveland live in poverty. This is an incredible statistic and is central to why Cleveland.com is telling stories about this complex issue — an issue that must be approached from many angles.
Mentoring through poverty
Often children growing up in poverty don’t have the benefit of a positive role model. One of the many factors that can influence a young person’s aspirations and outcomes, therefore, is whether or not they have a mentor. Mentors can provide a caring adult for kids to talk with, sharing insights, advice and experiences that are invaluable. Mentors can provide exposure to activities that a kid would normally not have access to and provide a view into various career paths.
In fact, a 2014 report from MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, reveals that at-risk youth with mentors are more likely to engage in positive activities, including volunteering, participating in school sports or clubs, and holding leadership positions in extracurricular activities. It was also reported that “more than three quarters (76 percent) of at-risk young adults who had a mentor aspire to enroll in and graduate from college versus half (56 percent) of at-risk young adults who had no mentor.”
Revealing needs in Greater Cleveland
United Way’s recently completed Community Assessment identified quality “out-of-school time” activities as a critical need for Greater Cleveland’s children. Mentoring is a proven best practice that can lead to social-emotional growth, improved academic performance and better school attendance. Not only does United Way support mentoring programs through its funding, the Young Leaders also volunteer with Boys and Girls Clubs at the very same King Kennedy housing complex featured on Cleveland.com.
Visit http://www.cleveland.com/a-greater-cleveland/ to read the stories and experience how poverty truly affects so many people in our region.
By Seeds of Literacy Executive Director, Bonnie Entler
Seeds of Literacy is a nationally accredited non-profit organization that provides free basic education and GED® preparation to adults in the Cleveland area. Seeds believes that the root cause of poverty is illiteracy and that working together with students, volunteers, donors and more, we can put an end to this cycle. Led by more than 200 volunteer tutors, and overseen by professional educators, Seeds’ offers a personalized one-on-one model of learning, with flexible class times.
The Seeds’ program empowers adults to succeed by fighting the root cause of poverty: illiteracy. Studies show that an average of 66 percent of Clevelanders are functionally illiterate, with some neighborhoods as high as 85 percent. Functional illiteracy means they may have trouble understanding bus schedules, utility bills, or doctor’s instructions, and are unable to help their children with homework – all skills necessary for running a household.
“66 percent of Cleveland Adults are functionally illiterate”
The causes for illiteracy vary by individual, so in addition to educational instruction, Seeds’ instructors offer care and genuine concern for the welfare of students. This dynamic combination can be life changing – a powerful first step towards economic self-sufficiency, better health and the academic success of a student’s entire family.
We hold new student orientation every week and we’re open year-round so students can learn at their own pace and around their busy schedules. Students set their individual educational goals in orientation, so rather than a one-size-fits-all curricula, instruction is completely customized for each individual. Students have the ability to attend any – or all – of the classes that are offered three times a day, four days a week. We have both East and West side locations, conveniently located along major bus routes.
Find out how you can get involved with Seeds. Call us at 216.661.7950 or visit us at www.seedsofliteracy.org.
Check out the video below to get a glimpse into what we do here at Seeds of Literacy!
YWCA Greater Cleveland is dedicated to empowering women, but our organization does more than only serve women. The YWCA includes women and men as members, volunteers, supporters and leaders. Programs serve women and men, young adults, adolescents and children. We also provide services to other nonprofit organizations and the business community.
What does YWCA Greater Cleveland do?
The YWCA has responded to the special needs of young adults transitioning out of failing systems, such as foster care. YWCA Greater Cleveland created Independence Place to address the critical need for housing and supportive services of homeless youth. Independence Place is an apartment complex that provides permanent supportive housing to 23 formerly homeless youth, and in some cases their young children, along with case management and supportive services.
YWCA Greater Cleveland also pioneered the NIA program – Nurturing Independence and Aspirations. Under the guidance of a Life Coach, NIA participants pursue educational opportunities, focus on career development, receive housing assistance, learn the importance of health care, and develop life and parenting skills. NIA serves Independence Place residents as well as the YWCA’s Early Learning Center students and parents.
What is the YWCA Early Leaning Center?
The YWCA’s Early Learning Center serves children age three-to-five experiencing homelessness or similar adverse experiences. Our innovative trauma-informed model:
- Assesses and identifies the social-emotional needs of the children
- Works with families to create goals and case plans
- Prevents the re-occurrence of homelessness
- Empowers families to achieve and maintain the highest level of self-sufficiency
Recognized for our excellence and leadership in serving homeless youth and their families, in September 2016, YWCA Greater Cleveland was selected by a White House initiative, A Way Home America, as the lead agency for a community – wide collaboration of non-profit and government agencies. The collaborative, named A Place 4 Me, was challenged to house 100 homeless youth in 100 days. Together we exceeded that goal.
A Place 4 Me is a cross-sector initiative that harnesses the strengths and resources of its partners to prevent and end homelessness among young adults age 15 to 24 in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. A Place 4 Me is led by a steering committee consisting of the YWCA Greater Cleveland; Cuyahoga County Department of Health and Human Services, including the Division of Children and Family Services and the Office of Homeless Services; FrontLine Service; the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative; and the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland.
About YWCA Greater Cleveland
YWCA Greater Cleveland is a unique and vital community resource in Northeast Ohio committed to eliminating racism and empowering women. It was established in 1868 and with its 150th anniversary approaching, the YWCA is one of the oldest continuously operating nonprofits in Cleveland.
By Joanne Federman, executive director, Family Connections of Northeast Ohio
For 35 years, Family Connections has been building connections with families and their children from birth through six years old. At Family Connections, we invite every family into a nurturing community to find their own path that promotes effective parenting for children that are prepared for success in school.
Our five staffed playrooms – three of them located in public libraries – offer a total of 65 hours per week of instructional playtime in the City of Cleveland, as well as Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights. Through our home visiting, school readiness program called SPARK (Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids), we are currently serving families in the City of Cleveland, East Cleveland, Maple Heights and Warrensville Heights.
United Way specifically funds our Family School Connection program, active in all seven elementary schools in the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School District, one in the Shaker Heights City School District and another in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. Our family liaisons partner with parents to help young students master pre-reading skills.
Research, along with our experiences, shows that the same family support principles that worked 35 years ago are still as impactful and relevant as ever. That is why the valued support of United Way is critical in helping us strengthen families and improve early literacy.
By Sam Ameen, communications coordinator, Public Relations, Parma City School District
Thoreau Park Elementary Principal Jamie Franko was anxious to see the Reading Room the school was receiving from United Way of Greater Cleveland courtesy of the of Young Leaders and its Readers Become Leaders initiative. On May 12, the room was revealed to the students, faculty and staff.
“We’ve been really excited that we were given this opportunity. I’ve been really excited since they reached out to me in December and said that we were going to be the recipients of the room,” Franko said. “It totally went above and beyond my expectations for what I thought the Reading Room was going to look like.”
The room has an outer-space theme and was furnished with comfortable places to lounge and read a book, such as beanbag chairs. The Reading Room was supplied with 500 books, which were donated by the Cleveland Kids’ Book Bank.
“It’s just another space in our building that really focuses on literacy and helps our students with early literacy and growing as students here,” Franko said.
“Kids were saying this is the greatest thing ever, they were thanking the Young Leaders, the volunteers for everything that they’ve done and I think just really made their day and it has already impacted our building,” Franko said.
The Reading Room is located outside of Principal Franko’s office in the main hallway for ease of access.
United Way of Greater Cleveland is proud to be part of the exploratory group working to bring Say Yes to Cleveland.
The bold promise of Say Yes is to bring together an entire community to ensure each of its children has the opportunity –and the support – to go to college. Using last-in-dollar scholarships as a catalyst, Say Yes partners with communities to create systems intended to help every child progress along the pathway to post-secondary success.
Partners from the public, philanthropic, nonprofit and private sectors are working together over the next 12 to 18 months on the complexities required for consideration by Say Yes.
We’re also glad for the ongoing support and encouragement from the Say Yes team. As Say Yes Chief Operating Officer Eugene Chasin says, “it’s clear to the senior leadership of Say Yes that Cleveland is a community with a fierce desire to give its young people access to higher education, armed with the support to succeed in obtaining a college degree or other postsecondary credential.”
“At United Way, we know it takes a village to ensure our community’s kids have everything they need to succeed academically and ultimately pursue higher education,” said United Way of Greater Cleveland President and CEO August Napoli. “If Cleveland is successful in becoming a partner community with Say Yes, we are excited about the opportunity to wrap holistic services – everything from tutoring to health care – to elementary, middle and high school students. Say Yes is an innovative strategy that will create new excitement about education in our community.”
In the coming months, our work includes:
- Determining the parameters and criteria to provide last-dollar tuition scholarships to qualifying students admitted to an in-state public college or university
- Establishing a local fundraising committee and raising a significant portion of the scholarship fund as part of the approval process
- Identifying the necessary in-school and out-of-school supports and services and related public and philanthropic funding sources to meet the development needs of every child
If Say Yes ultimately approves Cleveland’s application, the organization would commit to invest $15 million in the community over six years, as various milestones are achieved. Those funds are not intended to be used to pay for scholarships. Rather, they would help to finance the scaffolding of a communitywide governance structure to manage the local Say Yes partnership and to seed student and family supports that, in other Say Yes communities, have included school-based social work; mental and physical health; legal services; college and career counseling; tutoring, and robust after-school and summer enrichment programs.
United Way is a member of the Cleveland exploratory group along with City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Cleveland Foundation and College Now of Greater Cleveland.