Wake County Schools

This Cary student heard NC children are struggling to read. She collected 1,240 books to help them.

Posted November 22, 2019 5:00 a.m. EST
Updated December 2, 2019 12:59 p.m. EST

— Bria Wurst has always loved reading. As a child, she would read at the dinner table until her mother reminded her to put away her book during mealtime. Sometimes, she secretly read under the table. Realistic fiction stories were her favorite, especially how they could transport her to a different world without leaving her house.

Now a 16-year-old junior at Panther Creek High School in Cary, Bria still loves to read, especially poetry, and has even been writing some stories of her own. But she was shocked to learn recently that North Carolina students are struggling to read despite the state spending more than $150 million on literacy efforts since 2012.

Under North Carolina's Read to Achieve program, students must be reading at grade level by the end of third grade in order to advance. The latest state data show only 56.8% of third graders were proficient in reading last school year.

"I was obviously surprised by it, and then I immediately was like, what can I do to change it?'" Bria said. "I know the state is trying their best with the Read to Achieve program, but I feel like we as individuals could also do something to help fight these challenges."

With support from her parents, Keith and Keele Wurst of Cary, Bria posted a message on Nextdoor, a community social networking site, and told her neighbors she was collecting books to help children read. Any books she received would be donated to Book Harvest, a Durham-based nonprofit that provides free books to children in central North Carolina with the goal of improving childhood literacy.

Bria posted about her book drive in October. One month later, her family's garage was filled with books. One neighbor, a former teacher, donated 80 books – the largest donation Bria received from a single person.

"I just wanted books," Bria said, smiling. "I was not expecting to get 600 ... That was a surprise."

When she donated the books to Book Harvest on Nov. 23, she realized she undercounted how many she had collected. Instead of 600 books, she had 1,240. Bria hopes her donation will help children learn to love reading like she does.

"If kids read more when they're younger then they'll have better literacy rates in schools," Bria said. "And then they'll then become better readers when they are adults, too."

Bria had many favorite books as a child – "Harry Potter," "Percy Jackson" and "The Lightning Thief" series, and one of her favorites, "11 Birthdays," which she enjoyed so much she checked out of the library five times when she was in middle school.

"When I was a kid, I read a lot of realistic fiction books because I like just reading about other people's stories, kind of because it wasn't my life," she said.

Bria Wurst

Bria Wurst, a junior at Panther Creek High School in Cary, collected 600 books to help children with reading.
Photographer: Kelly Hinchcliffe

Bria shines a light on Book Harvest

Bria hopes the books she collected will inspire children to love reading and help Book Harvest improve childhood literacy. She emailed the organization recently to let them know about her upcoming donation.

Daniele Berman, communications and events manager for Book Harvest, was shocked by Bria's email. High school students often donate books to the organization as part of school or service projects, but Bria's donation is different.

Not only did she collect the books out of a personal passion for reading, she also contacted WRAL News about her book drive in the hopes of shining a light on Book Harvest, not herself.

"That part blew me away," Berman said, noting that Bria has no ties to the organization, other then her upcoming donation, and that they appreciate her efforts to highlight their work.

"She wants people to hear about Book Harvest, not about how great she is," Berman said. "I was super impressed with that."

Book Harvest was founded in 2011 by Chapel Hill mother Ginger Young, who noticed she had a lot of books around her house that her children had outgrown. She pulled some aside to donate and asked friends if they had any books they wanted to give away. Before long, she had 10,000 books in her garage, according to Berman.

Young took them to Inter-Faith Council for Social Service in Chapel Hill, where she set up a free book area for kids in the lobby and kept it restocked, with the Inter-Faith Council's blessing. From there, Book Harvest was born. The nonprofit gives away about 2,500 to 3,000 books each week and gave away its millionth book last fall.

"Our big thing is we want kids to own their own books. We're not a library," Berman said. "We want kids to take as many books as they want anytime, because we want kids to have bedside tables overflowing with stories and bookshelves overflowing with books."

One book the organization can't seem to keep on the shelves is "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."

"I don't know what it is, but we can never, never, never get enough of those. Kids love that series," Berman said.

Board books for babies, books in Spanish and those with diverse characters and authors are also highly sought after and hard to keep in stock, she said.

Bria's donation is coming at a good time. Book Harvest is typically well stocked from January through June, thanks to an annual book event the organization holds in January. But "summer through now is when our supplies are lowest," Berman said. "I think we don't have any board books for babies right now."

Bria is happy to help. She says the experience has taught her that anyone can make a difference, even if you're young and start with a small goal in mind.

"I feel like it's satisfying to be able to know that I collected all these books and that they're all going to homes for children so that they can read them and love them the same way that I love books," Bria said.

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