RANIA ZURI HAS HELPED USHER IN MORE GOOD FOR HER COMMUNITY AND EFFECTIVELY GAINED MORE NATIONAL RECOGNITION THAN MANY EARN IN A LIFETIME. BUT, SHE HASN’T GRADUATED FROM HIGH SCHOOL YET.
From an early age the self-proclaimed “bibliophile” saw that her love of books could extend into actionable change. “I’ve always been very fortunate,” Rania said,“I’ve grown up with books in my life, and I had all types of books. But, I know that’s not the case for millions of children in the United States.” The Morgantown High senior first identified that book deserts were an unresolved issue back in middle school when she helped organize a free community library for migrant girls.
Book deserts, similar to food deserts, are geographic regions (usually low-income or rural) where access to reading materials is greatly limited. Rania set out to eliminate these deserts, hoping to instill that same passion for reading in other children in West Virginia and across the country, by founding the nonprofit organization the LiTEArary Society. What started as a casual book club for discussing literature and drinking tea (her favorite combo being Guy de Maupassant while sipping Bengal Spice) quickly grew into something bigger.
Rania molded the “society” into an official 501(c)(3), allowing her to spearhead the organization’s first Barnes and Noble book drive in 2021. After organizing with dozens of other high schoolers and families around town, the team successfully raked in thousands of donations. This first event enabled the organization to donate a book to every child in Head Start programs in Monongalia, Mingo and McDowell counties, as well as every child in foster care in the West Virginia Children’s Home Society Region 1 for the holidays. But Rania wanted to do more.
Head Start is a federal school readiness program for children from birth to age five who come from low-income families. The children enrolled in this program — especially in the more rural areas of West Virginia — quickly became the LiTEArary Society’s main target, and this initial book drive acted as a launchpad for their next project.
The following March, Rania expanded efforts to the entire state and embarked on a statewide road trip. By April 1, she had successfully delivered a brand new book to every child enrolled in Head Start across the entirety of West Virginia. Rania explained that for some of these students, this donation would become the child’s first book at home.
“I found that a lot during the West Virginia Head Start road tour,” Rania said. “Parents, teachers and Head Start directors were all saying [these children] weren’t eligible for certain reading programs and don’t have any books at home. And, some places I visited were so rural — a population of less than 200 — that there was very limited access to libraries as well.”
With this feat of nearly 7,000 books donated in a month, recognition was sure to follow. Rania and the organization started garnering national attention from media giants, with features rolling in from Today, NPR, Fox News, PBS, NBC Nightly News and Forbes, to name a few. While other teens might struggle to manage SAT prep with calculus homework, Rania began balancing life as a student, an activist, a CEO and a full-on spokesperson for eliminating book deserts. She penned an op-ed for Teen Vogue, delivered an impactful TEDx Talk, and even had an entire segment on Good Morning America. Her appearance on the morning talk show ended with a surprise sizable donation to the LiTEArary Society with the help of Scholastic.
“I never thought that it would become this big of a movement,” Rania said. “It’s been a whirlwind.” While that attention was great for expanding her mission, at times it was also overwhelming. “After Good Morning America especially,” Rania explained, “that’s when I started getting just so many emails from people all around the country saying, ‘I never knew what a book desert was before I saw your segment,’ and ‘I want to help, how can I donate?’ And, that’s only grown.”
This newfound attention and influx of donations emboldened the organization to mobilize on a national scale. Rania’s organization embarked on what she called the “Fifty Nifty Head Start Road Tour.” Their travels spanned nationwide, allowing the LiTEArary Society to donate brand new books to thousands of children enrolled in Head Start across all fifty states of America.
After wrapping that country-wide campaign, Rania made her most recent national media appearance on The Kelly Clarkson Show in January 2023. The charismatic musician-turned-host ended the interview with yet another donation (courtesy of Pilot Pens) which has since allowed Rania to provide further advocacy back home in Appalachia.
In total, at the time of writing, Rania Zuri’s organization reports that it has impacted over 18,000 preschool-aged children by providing funding for nearly 200,000 new books!
She said her seemingly unending motivation to achieve these impressive feats (all before her eighteenth birthday) stems from one source. “The children, 100 percent,” Rania gushed.
“When I get to go and do preschool read-aloud circles, and I see the joy that the children get from getting their brand new book,” she continued, “it truly just inspires me and motivates me to keep expanding and get books into the hands of more children throughout the nation. It’s truly been the greatest delight of my life.”
It’s not often you see youth like Rania and her peers driven to help other, more vulnerable youth. That, perhaps, is the nonprofit’s secret recipe: by youth and for youth. Despite going off to college soon, she explained that keeping the organization youth-led is a critical component of the organization. “Since this is my lifelong passion project, I’ll always be at the head,” she said, “but now we have a new generation that is taking over every year.”
“All of our board members — like our COO, our CMO, our CFO — they’re all in high school,” Rania explained. “Then, we also now have a smaller division of the LiTEArary Society called the Lemonade Society. They are all 12-and-under, doing amazing work in the DC metro area.”
The Lemonade Society ‘mini-CEOs’ Charlotte and Hendrik, despite being only seven and nine, have played a hand in inspiring dozens of other children to carry out the organization’s mission. While meetings are fully supervised and coordinated by adults, the children take an active role in leadership. Since this extension, as Rania describes, the Lemonade Society has collected and gift-wrapped books for Head Start programs, Indigenous Cree children and Afghan refugees. Plus, by creating this younger division, she hopes to ensure the transition from Lemonade to LiTEArary leadership is fluid.
If all of that wasn’t enough, Rania just finished writing her second original children’s book titled, The Bunnyfields and the McFluffs: Billy Bob’s Tale of Feuding, Families, and Friendship. This kid-friendly and rabbit-led retelling of West Virginia’s famous Hatfields and McCoys feud comes after releasing, It’s Mountain Music To My Ears!, Rania’s first children’s story. Both follow Appalachian hare Billy Bob as he hops through the region’s hollers, harmonies and histories. Of course, these books aren’t just ‘fluff’ pieces, and 100% of profits go towards the LiTEArary Society’s One Book at a Time initiative.
This initiative is no small side project either. In fact, it is Rania’s most recent undertaking: drafting a U.S. Senate resolution to create a One Book at a Time commemorative day for Head Start programs nationwide.
“The purpose is really twofold,”she explained.“One is to promote awareness to book deserts, and also provide a method of how individuals can actually make a tangible impact in ending book deserts.” While partnering with national Head Start leaders, her vision is to rally major book retailers like Barnes and Noble and Amazon to offer discounted pricing during the national holiday and ensure donations flood in. Additionally, Rania said she hopes to bridge the vast network of Head Start centers with individuals, streamlining the donation process.
“I hope to get thousands of books,” Rania beamed, “maybe even millions. Because Head Start serves millions of children.”
Securing that many books and a federally recognized celebration is far from easy. But given Rania and the LiTEArary Society’s track record, national attention and seemingly ceaseless motivation, there is no doubt this will be yet another successful chapter in the nonprofit’s story.