Young Change Makers: How Isabella Tejeda of the ‘Read a Story, Change a Life’ Is Helping To Make A Difference In Our World
An Interview With Sonia Molodecky
Be yourself. Don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there and showing off your talents. For my project, I used my skills in reading and storytelling to make a successful program.
Trust in yourself. Believe that you can do it and you can achieve anything. I remember when times were tough and it was hard engaging the kids or finding donations. I had to push myself and remember why I was doing what I was doing. I never gave up.
As part of our series about young people who are making an important social impact, I had the pleasure of interviewing Isabella Tejeda.
Isabella Tejeda is a current Freshman at Westmont College in Santa Barbara. Isabella created Read a Story, Change a Life, a literacy intervention program that has helped more than 2,500 at risk children learn to read and write. Her program inspires imagination and builds lifelong readers through storytelling and interactive workshops. Based in Anaheim, it serves children at affordable housing developments, low-income preschools, and local libraries. Her program also supports young students in Kampala, Uganda. Isabella has built a team of 120 volunteers, and has raised more than $44,000 to fund her work, with donations from Disney, First Book, and Youth Service America, among other groups. Most recently, Isabella was awarded the 2020 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes.
Isabella first learned of the dire need for literacy intervention while volunteering as an 8th grader at Higher Ground Youth and Family Services, a local agency that supports at-risk youth. She discovered that nearly 80% of the children there were reading two grade levels below state standards. She also learned that most of the children had never visited the public library — her childhood home away from home, where she volunteered for seven years. Isabella decided to take what she’d loved growing up at her library — the storytelling, workshops, and theatrical events — and bring them to at-risk children. She asked experts in Library Science for help with curriculum and recruited high school volunteers with experience in theater, creative writing, and design.
Together, they created a 105-page training manual that includes scripts, songs, an instructional DVD of story time materials, and puppets. The Yorba Linda Public Library uses her materials to train volunteers, and recently committed to continuing her program for years to come. Isabella will be continuing her work while at college, spreading her program to even more cities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us about how you grew up?
One of the most sobering facts I have learned while volunteering, is that much of our life trajectory begins at home. Often times, the geographical location of your home determines the quality of your education, employment opportunities, and food security. My start in life was all that a parent hopes for a child. I was raised by two loving parents in a safe and secure environment, with opportunities to attend amazing schools. My parents stressed the importance of education, but also taught me that my opportunities were not an entitlement, but a gift that would one day need to be paid forward. With my mom being a librarian, I spent most of my time in the library reading, attending story times, and as I got older, volunteering. The library is like a second home to me, which is where my love for reading and storytelling began. I’m fascinated by stories, life stories, and the fact that our stories change as we connect with other’s stories.
Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Effective leadership requires one to identify a need or idea with the ability to move others to join them to help create change. In my sophomore year of high school, my reflective essay on leadership and the importance of volunteerism earned me the honor of being chosen as Rosary Academy’s Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership State Seminar delegate for Outstanding Sophomores. At this Summit, I was empowered to develop my leadership skills by focusing on personal leadership, group leadership, and leadership for society. My HOBY experience and being able to work closely with other likeminded youth activists, crystallized my desire to be a catalyst for positive change, and ignited my desire to do more. With this wind under my sails, I attended the HOBY World Youth Congress the following year in Chicago as a HOBY Ambassador. At this congress, I was given further training on how to focus my leadership efforts in my community, and I returned home dedicated to sharing what I had learned. A couple summers ago, I organized and funded my own local HOBY CLeW seminar in my community. I reached out to local high schools and requested nominations for rising Sophomores identified as leaders on campus and invited them to attend. At this event, I, along with my fellow HOBY Ambassadors, helped our attendees to identify needs within their communities and taught them skills to formulate plans of action. In addition, we taught how to be more effective listeners, identify stereotypes and biased opinions, while seeking equitable solutions. As a HOBY Ambassador, my most valuable lessons have been the importance of passion and compassion. Without passion for purpose and compassion for humanity, there is no way to move others to follow your lead. Whether promoting my literacy program with over 120 volunteers, working as a Peer Assistance League member to help to support a student who’s been a victim of bullying, or rallying my team in the face of a heartbreaking loss as Varsity Team Tennis Captain, I have learned to show up with passion and compassion, which is contagious and motivating.
You are currently leading an organization that is helping to make a positive social impact. Can you tell us a little about what you and your organization are trying to create in our world today?
Illiteracy is a great global problem with devastating emotional and financial ramifications. According to recent statistics released from the United Way, national evaluations conclude that a child not reading at grade level by the end of the first grade has an 88% chance of not reading at grade level by the end of the fourth grade. Those not reading proficiently by third grade, are four times more likely to drop out of school. According to Our World in Data, literacy is the key skill and the key measure of a population’s education.
While volunteering at Higher Ground Summer Camp, I noted a great need for a literacy intervention program. Upon further investigation, I learned that 78% of the children who attended the Higher Ground Intervention Camp, and the remaining students at the adjacent Lincoln Elementary School, were reading 2 grade levels below the California State Standard. Many of the children at Higher Ground face daily obstacles such as poverty, language barriers, unstable homes, and peer pressure to join gangs. These same children have never been to their local library, or witnessed a live theatrical or storytelling event. Some of the children shared with me that they were not “allowed” to check out books due to the parent’s fear of not being able to afford overdue or lost book fees. Armed with this information, I decided to create “Read a Story, Change a Life,” a literacy intervention program designed to inspire a love of reading through storytelling and writing workshops to provide equal access to literacy success. The recent shipment of the program to St. Joseph Primary School in Uganda significantly impacts the literacy success of the students who have little resources and opportunities, most especially female students. Without proper education and resources, these children have a greater chance of remaining in poverty. The program I created helps bridge the gap between “struggling readers” to “readers for life,” because an inspired reader is a life-long reader.
Can you tell us the backstory about what originally inspired you to feel passionate about this cause and to do something about it?
Five years ago, while volunteering at Higher Ground Youth and Family Services, a local youth intervention camp for at-risk youth, I met a group of kids who touched my heart. While volunteering, I slowly gained their trust and learned their stories. It was during that time that I learned that many of the children attending the camp were reading two grade levels below their peers, and many did not have access to books from local libraries due to fears of not being able to afford overdue or lost book fees. As a young student whose local library has always been a home away from home, I found these facts to be devastating. What started out as an idea to close the literacy gap and provide equitable access to literacy intervention, has grown into “Read a Story,Change a Life,” a literacy intervention program designed to help promote literacy, inspire imagination, and build life-long readers through storytelling and writing workshops. This idea and passion has continued to grow far beyond what I could have imagined.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
A story that will always be ingrained in my memory occurred during the first summer my project was launched. This young boy was enrolled in the Higher Ground Youth and Family Summer Camp during the first year of my project, “Read a Story, Change a Life.” He was one of the first campers I met, and I will never forget him and the huge impact he made on me. He walked into the room with about 30 other young boys within the ages of 7–9. It was very obvious that he was the ring leader of the group from the way he was standing (hands in his pockets and smirk on his face), and the way he was acting. He stood in the back of the room, refusing to participate, and repeatedly calling our puppet show, “fake.” While my volunteers and I did our best to “win over” the crowd, he was clearly not impressed, which then led his friends to act as if they didn’t care either. Over the next two weeks, we continued to show up and put on our show for the campers, including this young boy. We gradually gained the trust of the young campers, and many started to look forward to our program, constantly asking us, “Will you be here tomorrow too?” Over time, this one little boy began to pay more attention, and would move closer to the front row every day. Towards the end of that summer, he became my most active and enthusiastic participant. Whenever we would ask if anyone would like to volunteer to put on a show or read a book, he was always the first little hand I would see in the air. He loved being the alligator in the show, “Five Little Monkeys,” or one of the little worms in, “Hermie the Worm.” I later found out how rough this young boy’s life was. I was told that he was the troublemaker at camp and it was always so hard to keep him in check. I also discovered his father was in a notorious gang, which explained his want to act “cool.” It gave me joy to know that not only would he find his happy place in my program, but he would listen to what myself and my volunteers would say. In time, I became his mentor, and it has been a blessing to watch him and all the children grow.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
When thinking of someone who has been helped by my cause, my dear friend, Fr. Josephat Ddungu, comes to mind. Fr. Josephat is the founder and director of St. Joseph Primary School in Kampala, Uganda. It operates as a boarding school in an impoverished area which relies mainly on donations. I was overjoyed when I found out I received an additional grant which provided the funding I needed to make my project a global endeavor. With this funding I was able to duplicate the program, including puppet theaters, puppets, scripts, and the training DVD, for shipment to the St. Joseph Primary School.
It was with tremendous joy that I was able to communicate with the teaching staff in regards to the training materials. The teachers, in turn, proudly sent me videos of the students performing the puppet shows for their peers. These students have never attended a local library or theatrical event. The teaching staff called my program a “new innovation,” which makes me so proud.
How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Growing up, I have always enjoyed stability and safety. I have always known that I would return to my parents — and their questions about my day — each evening. Unbeknownst to me, this was not the reality of all (or even a majority of) children in my area. It would take volunteering at a local intervention camp for at risk youth to learn this, and to hear the story of the maid at Disneyland. In those first days of working at the camp, I met a bubbly boy who spoke longingly about a mother that worked desperately and voraciously as a Disneyland maid, and who told stories of waiting to see her when she got home. Later, coworkers shared the details that he could not: his father was part of a local gang, and his household was incredibly unstable. Eventually, I met many students like him, and found that they were many things, among them: hungry for food, attention, education, and — most of all — security. They received sterile labels such as “at-risk” because of their home life and struggled daily to live what I thought was a “normal life.” They lived scattered around the city of Anaheim and its proximity to Disneyland. They lived in the shadows of the happiest place on Earth, where their parents labored behind the luxurious scenes as maids, cooks, and maintenance workers. The story of a boy whose mother works both early and late inspired a chain reaction within my city and within myself. Certainties that I was convinced of were shaken, and, instead of idling by, I chose to respond with action. I think about Jesus and his mother, I think about the constant stakes of their lives, and I think about the part that reading might have in the rest of their story. I hope to carry the tales of these forgotten few with me, and I hope that I can continue to bring light to all of the stories that hide in the shadows, corners, and recesses of our society.
Many young people would not know what steps to take to start to create the change they want to see. But you did. What are some of the steps you took to get your project started? Can you share the top 5 things you need to know to become a changemaker? Please tell us a story or example for each.
1. Always know that age does not define your ability to create change in the world. When searching for donations from local businesses to help supply my project, I was amazed by how many people were so willing to help me. Companies such as Staples and Sherwin Williams supported me by giving me supplies for the kids to utilize.
2. Reach out to as many people as you can for help, do not be afraid of rejection! In order to fund my project, I had to apply for many grants and publicly speak to many groups to find donations. When speaking before a crowd I learned to harness my nervous energy. Once I started talking about my passions, I forgot about being afraid.
3. Do your research and just go for it! When seeking grant money you need to be specific in your application. You need to describe the need and quantify the potential results. Confidently and passionately put your idea out there and don’t take no as an answer! I made sure to explain every detail about what my project would do, and explain how important it was to me.
4. Be yourself. Don’t be afraid of putting yourself out there and showing off your talents. For my project, I used my skills in reading and storytelling to make a successful program.
5. Trust in yourself. Believe that you can do it and you can achieve anything. I remember when times were tough and it was hard engaging the kids or finding donations. I had to push myself and remember why I was doing what I was doing. I never gave up.
What are the values that drive your work?
I come from a family who has taught me the importance of volunteerism and service. Through organizations such as my church, Girl Scouts, National Charity League, Yorba Linda Public Library, and my school, Rosary Academy, I have volunteered over 1500 hours of service which has enabled me to grow into a compassionate, young changemaker.
The process of finding a cause I feel passionate about, developing a plan of attack, and getting others to care enough to join me on the journey has been life changing. I have found that age does not define our ability to create lasting positive change in the world. My work to remedy a problem in my community has evolved in an international effort to fight issues of literacy that appear in communities that are impoverished, and I am so proud of this. The stories of the children I have come to know inspired a chain reaction within my city and within myself, and instead of fear in the face of these issues, I chose to respond with action.
Many people struggle to find what their purpose is and how to stay true to what they believe in. What are some tools or daily practices that have helped you to stay grounded and centred in who you are, your purpose, and focused on achieving your vision?
Some tools that have helped me stay grounded are gratitude, family, and prayer. My parents have always told me, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” They have taught me that perfection is not the goal, but perfecting my innate gifts are. Gratitude has helped me stay centred on who I am and what my purpose is because God put me here for a reason. I believe that reason is for me to do everything I can to help those in need.
In my work, I aim to challenge us all right now to take back our human story and co-create a vision for a world that works for all. I believe youth should have agency over their own future. Can you please share your vision for a world you want to see? I’d love to have you describe what it looks like and feels like. As you know, the more we can imagine it, the better we can manifest it!
I imagine a world where your zip code does not determine your access to opportunities and success in the world. All too often, especially now, I hear people saying “they” or “them” in a derogatory way, as if we are not all connected. If the students I work with succeed, I also succeed. Our resources are bountiful, but society preaches accumulation of personal wealth, rather than investing cumulatively in humanity. We, the youth of America, are more willing and able to embrace differences in society. Our voice was heard in the recent election, where the youth vote was unprecedented. I see a world where young minds work in tandem with the establishment to rewrite what “with liberty and justice for all” truly means to society.
We are powerful co-creators and our minds and intentions create our reality. If you had limitless resources at your disposal, what specific steps would take to bring your vision to fruition?
I almost fell off my chair when I received the phone call about being named a 2020 Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes recipient. What came with the amazing honor was a $10,000 award to help continue my program. The day I presented the funds to the organization I partner with, was one of the happiest days of my life. The donation will be used to continue my program, help fund a newly built STEM Lab, and help support a new Family Health Center. This is one small example of what funding can do.
We live in a society that promotes the accumulation of wealth, but I have found that true joy and purpose come from giving it all away. We each have innate gifts given to us. True joy comes when we discover our gifts and give them back to society. I used my storytelling gift to inspire students to read, write and dream beyond their circumstances.
I would use limitless funds to promote the necessity of equitable learning opportunities.
I see a world driven by the power of love, not fear. Where human beings treat each other with humanity. Where compassion, kindness and generosity of spirit are characteristics we teach in schools and strive to embody in all we do. What changes would you like to see in the educational system? Can you explain or give an example?
Now more than ever, as we collectively experience the Covid-19 Pandemic, the inequities of equal learning potentials in the public-school system have been illuminated. While some families can afford private tutors to assist their children in remote-learning, some students struggle with access to the internet. My dream is for our society to know that when our neighbors succeed, we succeed. Creating equitable access to education for all students is paramount to building a sustainable society. When we love our neighbor, we all succeed.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
The process of finding a cause I feel passionate about, developing a plan of attack, and getting others to care enough to join me on the journey has been life changing. This experience has also taught me the power of simply asking. Although I did receive many “no’s,” to my request, I’m absolutely astounded by the number of people who said “yes.” My best advice for young people who desire to make change is to just go for it, confidently and passionately put your request out there, find your “yes.”
Is there a person in the world with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)
Someone that I would absolutely love to enjoy a private breakfast or lunch with would be Michelle Obama. I would love to talk to her about her new initiative, Higher Ground Productions. I love how strong of a woman she is, and how she continues to inspire girls all over the world. She is not only extremely intelligent and compassionate, but she is talented in whatever she does. It would be an honor to have the opportunity to sit down and share a meal with her.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I have created an Instagram and Twitter that document my project from Day 1! My Instagram is @readastorychange a life and my Twitter is @gsgogold .
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
About the interviewer: Sonia Molodecky is a Canadian-Ukrainian lawyer, entrepreneur and heart-centered warrior who’s spent more than 15 years working in human rights, international law, business, economic development, community empowerment and her own personal journey into herself. Seven years ago, Sonia left a comfortable position at one of Canada’s top law firms as a finance lawyer and National Chair of a Latin American Services Group, to co-found the Global Indigenous Development Trust. A Canadian indigenous-led not-for-profit, the organization works to empower indigenous communities and traditional knowledge systems worldwide to build natural economies and healthy futures for people and planet. Sonia has since spent time living and working with indigenous nations around the world, as a facilitator, partner, shaman apprentice and friend, gaining a deep understanding of both ancient systems and modern ways, and our interconnection with all life. She is a certified kundalini yoga practitioner, energy healing facilitator, avid adventurer and explorer of the natural world. Her passion is helping people realize their true potential as human beings based on a heart-centered path — one that is built on the energy of love, abundance, health and joy. She speaks world-wide on topics related to meaningful collaboration, life economies, the power of partnerships and the benefits of informed, empowered and engaged communities. “It is time for us to take back our human story and co-create a new vision for a world that is in harmony with ourselves, each other, the Earth and all beings,” says Molodecky. Her book, A New Human Story: A Co-Creator’s Guide to Living our True Potential. launches December 2020. You can learn more about Sonia, her book and her podcast at www.soniamolodecky.com and follow her at https://www.instagram.com/soniamolodecky or https://www.facebook.com/ sonia.molodecky