Orono High School’s Maria Keller Founds Literacy Nonprofit Read Indeed

An Orono High School student is changing the world, one book at a time.
Maria Keller’s favorite book, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, inspires Maria’s own mission to donate books to kids in need all over the world.

In the 2005 novel The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, 9-year-old protagonist Liesel Meminger turns to literature to cope with living in Nazi-occupied Germany during World War II. Liesel steals books from a local library, teaching herself to read amid the chaos and despair surrounding her. The Book Thief emphasizes the importance of reading, not just as a distraction from the trials of life, but also as a measure of our own growth and development.

So what does this novel have to do with Minnesota? Well, The Book Thief is 15-year-old Maria Keller’s favorite book, and after hearing Maria’s own story, it’s easy to see why. Maria, who is a sophomore at Orono High School, is the founder of Read Indeed, a nonprofit literacy program that collects and distributes books to children all over the world. According to the organization DoSomething.org, one in four children grow up in America never learning to read, which connects directly to Read Indeed’s mission statement: “To promote literacy by collecting and gifting books to at-risk children.” The group has done exactly that for more than five years. From low-funded schools to children’s hospitals, Read Indeed has, to date, delivered more than 1.6 million books to hundreds of thousands of kids in 48 U.S. states and 17 countries.

Maria works with her mom Maura Keller, who is Read Indeed’s executive director, along with nearly a dozen board members and other collaborators like local businesses and school districts. From Philadelphia to the Philippines, Maria’s goal from the get-go has been clear: help children experience the same excitement she feels after opening a book.

“I get into a good book, read it for hours, and once I finish it, it’s a shock coming back to [my] own world,” Maria explains. “It’s just amazing to have a really good book that you can’t stop reading until two in the morning.”

Growing up, the fictional lives of everyone from Tom Sawyer to Amelia Bedelia captivated her. In fact, it was her grade-school epiphany that most of her classmates weren’t as enthusiastic about reading as she was that changed Maria’s life forever.

“When Maria was 9, she was shocked other kids didn’t read as much as she did,” remembers Maura. “I had to break it to her that there are kids who don’t have books, and there are school districts where kids don’t have access to those things, and it was so hard for her to comprehend that.”

Determined to prove her mother and the world wrong, Maria began organizing a book drive during one summer vacation. The drive helped Maria donate thousands of books to kids in need in Minneapolis. But she still wasn’t satisfied. Maura Keller remembers, “Two or three weeks later, she brought up the book drive and said she wanted to do another one. I said ‘Sure, we’d be happy to help.’ ” Then Maria told her family that she had a much bigger goal: She wanted to donate 1 million books by the time she turned 18.

Maria and her mother began devoting more time to their cause, working out of their garage and collaborating with local schools and businesses for book collections and shipping. A year after Maria’s initial summer book drive, the duo had helped distribute more than 70,000 books, and schools outside of Minnesota were added to the donation list. During this time, Maria made her project official with its new name: Read Indeed. Local news outlets picked up the story, and it became clear that this was no longer a part-time gig for the Keller family. “We realized things were getting [very busy],” Maura recalls. “We live in a quiet area, and we had trucks dropping off books at our house, so we found another place.”

This other place was a warehouse that would ultimately become the headquarters for Read Indeed. The Junior League of Minneapolis offered the space as a way to contribute to the cause. Five years later, the warehouse is still where all the magic happens. Maria describes a typical day there as filled with active participation. “We have a few days a month where we go the warehouse to work with the volunteers, count books, box books, and arrange pickup and delivery from different organizations,” Maria says. Schools in higher-income districts often host book drives and then visit the warehouse to volunteer.

“My favorite part is reading emails and thank-you letters from kids,” Maria says. Schools and other organizations who want to receive books through Read Indeed fill out an application, and the nonprofit focuses on schools where at least 70 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch. Read Indeed also donates books to hospitals and other nonprofit organizations.

As Read Indeed grew, so did the demand for books. Donation requests started piling in from all over the country and even outside the U.S. Financial donations go to shipping costs and maintenance for the warehouse, but it’s the way Read Indeed works alongside other programs that allows it to expand globally. Often, mission groups bring books with them when they travel for their own projects. Read Indeed collaborates with just about anyone who’s willing to help spread the cause. “It’s so expensive to ship books, so we often piggyback on organizations who might be going outside the country,” Maura explains. “We even knew a dentist who went down to treat children in Central America. She was able to take a couple hundred books, so we find ways to be creative.”

Far in advance of her self-declared deadline of age 18, Maria accomplished her goal of 1 million books donated in October 2013—and she was only 13. Read Indeed also continues to receive lots of media attention, with outlets like CNN and The Ellen DeGeneres Show highlighting the organization’s efforts.

But it was on March 5, 2014, that Maria experienced her biggest recognition to date. She spent that evening in New York City, where she received a Jefferson Awards Foundation award for Outstanding National or Global Service by a Young American, an honor given out to just two American youths each year.

It’s not recognition or fame that drives Maria’s vision for Read Indeed. She devotes time from her busy schedule—which includes schoolwork and lacrosse practice—so kids around the world can be introduced to some of her literary heroes. And while her daily life might bear little resemblance to that of Liesel Meminger in The Book Thief, it’s that same connection to books that drives her. “I think kids should read just because it’s an amazing experience,” Maria explains. “I want to donate books to every state in the country and every country in the world. I don’t think I’ll ever stop doing Read Indeed, because it’s such an amazing experience.”

Sparking Imagination

Local author Spencer Wolf sees technology as a definitive factor in the push for children’s literacy. And Wolf knows a thing or two about the ins and outs of the digital world. He holds a bachelor of science degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and his most recent novel, After Mind, explores artificial intelligence. Wolf is donating 50 copies of After Mind to Read Indeed.

“I think there are some people who are fortunate to be able to read digitally, with smartphones, tablets, etc., but there are people who don’t have access to that technology, and need to read printed books,” Wolf explains. “That’s where Read Indeed comes in. It’s a terrific organization. And If I can help spark children’s imaginations through the donation of my book, that’s also a perfect fit.”

Like Maria Keller, Wolf became obsessed with the world of literature at a young age. But it took some persuasion for him to get there. “I picked up on reading back in grade school,” Wolf recalls. “I wasn’t doing too well, and one of my teachers in seventh grade said I wasn’t reading enough. So she took me to the library and introduced me to a book.” That book was Four Days of Naples by Aubrey Menen, which chronicles a group of boys involved in the liberation of Naples from German forces during World War II. Wolf says he was fascinated by the book, and it ultimately transformed him into a full-on reading enthusiast. He would eventually become an avid fan of famous science fiction authors like Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke.

Through his participation with Read Indeed, Wolf is hoping donations of his novel After Mind will help spark young imaginations. “I think what Maria is doing is a tremendous accomplishment,” Wolf says. “She had a goal, stuck to it and really has something that she’s contributing to the world. If we can continue to do what Maria’s doing, inspire creative forces in kids regardless of where they’re at in life, I think it benefits everyone.”

To learn more about Read Indeed and to find out how you can get involved, visit the website here.