Pro-literacy work earns accolades

By Beth Donze, Kids’ Clarion

Back in 2012, 6-year-old Nikki Leali was volunteering at a local playground when she heard about New Orleans’ “Little Free Library” movement from its founder, Linda Prout.

Prout’s idea was simple: homeowners would allow an elevated, weather-resistant cabinet to be erected on their property and would keep it stocked with books that any visitor could take home and read. Ideally, the borrower would either return the book to the library – or donate a different one – to keep the sharing going.

Prout told Nikki that grants were available to fund 10 new Little Free Libraries around the city.

“I applied for it and won, and so we had a Little Free Library installed in front of my house by the Boy Scouts,” said Nikki, now a 12-year-old sixth grader at Ursuline Academy.

Since then, Nikki’s library has circulated more than 40,000 books, many of them collected via book drives and other personal efforts. 

In recognition of her community service,  Nikki, the daughter of Joelle and Robert Leali, was chosen as one of six Louisiana finalists in Prudential Financial’s 2018 Spirit of Community Awards. Nikki received a bronze medallion for the honor at an April 13 ceremony in Ursuline’s auditorium.

“It makes me smile when I see people getting out of their cars to pick up books,” said Nikki of her home-based library. “I got a handwritten letter from someone who came to the library a lot. I had no idea who it was. It was about how much she loved what I was doing for the community and how much she loved the library.”

Nikki’s pro-literacy work extends even further. Earlier this month, she launched a monthly Tuesday afternoon “Youth Reading Club” at the Rosa Keller Library in Broadmoor that pairs middle school-age readers with younger children.

“It’s partner reading, so the older student doesn’t read the book to (the younger child) but with them,” Nikki explained. “Depending on their age, the older student might help the younger one with words they struggle with. They’ll read a page and then the child reads a page.”

Nikki also volunteers at Rosa Keller on Saturday mornings with the Friends of New Orleans Public Library. She sorts and boxes books and helps at library book sales.

“I love when people start reading, and I also like helping people learn to read, because it’s very important for school and in life,” said Nikki, who favors mysteries, fantasy literature “that’s not too out there,” and the young adult fiction of author Aimee Carter.

Service is a big part of Ursuline’s school culture and its guiding motto of Serviam – “I will serve.” The school requires students to complete service hours beginning in first grade and mounts a schoolwide service day to mark the feast day of the Ursuline Sisters’ foundress, St. Angela Merici. This year, Nikki and her sixth-grade classmates brought fellowship and fun to a senior residence in Kenner and interacted with children at Kingsley House.

 Nikki’s volunteer work at Rosa Keller Library is making her school especially proud. The branch’s namesake, the late Rosa Freeman Keller, is one of only five honorary alumnae of Ursuline Academy. Keller’s daughter, Gayle Keller, is a 1955 Ursuline graduate and funded the restoration of her alma mater’s Katrina-damaged courtyard in memory of her mother.

Nikki feels a kinship with the book-loving Rosa Keller every time she walks by her memorial plaque in the courtyard.

“I actually plan to run a hotel when I’m older, but I’m not sure when that’s gonna happen,” Nikki mused. “But I definitely want to put a library in front of my hotel!”

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