When Tatiana Grossman, a book-obsessed high schooler in California, found out that thousands of young children across Africa don’t have ready access to books, and that 35 million kids in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to education, she decided to do something about it.

Tatiana’s inspiration led to Spread the Words, a project she started to help improve early childhood literacy in Africa by creating physical libraries, by encouraging kids to write their own books, and by developing digital teaching materials for classrooms. Pretty cool stuff for someone who simultaneously has to deal with homework, extracurricular activities and college applications!

Tatiana took some time out of her busy schedule to tell Repair the World about how Spread the Words works, the super-lightweight digital educational projector she’s developing, and her lifelong commitment to tzedakah and tikkun olam.

Tell me about your background with service. It sounds like something you’ve always been passionate about?
Ever since I was little, I dedicated a third of my allowance to charity and tzedakah. I’d save it up in a box and once I amassed enough money I would decide which charity to give it too. When I was 7, I decided to donate it to this local animal center and I just walked in and said, “I want to make a donation” and gave them this little pile of cash. They weren’t quite sure what to do with it!

What was the inspiration behind Spread the Words?
I love reading so much – it is truly the thing I love most. As a kid, I would spend days upon days reading in my bed. One day, my parents were talking about a book drive that my former elementary school had just completed, and I got confused. I asked, “Why would kids in Africa need books?” I was stunned. I couldn’t imagine life without books.

My bat mitzvah was coming up and I decided I wanted to hold my own book drive and give kids in Africa a better opportunity to love reading. I set up a book drive in front of my local library and within 10 days I had collected 3,500 books, which is enough to start three libraries.

How does Spread the Words work?
Spread the Words inspires other kids to connect with books – both as readers and writers. In addition to starting the libraries and supporting them, we ship over paper and pens and encourage kids to write their own books, which we then help publish. That way, they have a book they made themselves.

Who do you partner with to help build the libraries?
I work with African Library Project, which is based in my community in California. They find communities in Africa that need books, build the libraries and help train local teachers about how to be librarians. After my first book drive I was hooked.

I’ve now helped donate more than 20,000 books and establish libraries in more than 100 villages across Botswana, Swaziland, Malawi, Ghana, and other places. I send everything from board books for babies all the way up to chapter books. Sometimes, when I’m sorting books for donation I find old favorites and end up just sitting and rereading them!

Where do you hope Spread the Words will grow in the coming years?
I recently came up with an idea that I am developing. Many of the teachers in Africa don’t have books to teach from – they teach from memory. So I thought about creating a digital projector loaded with thousands of pages of digital materials, curricula, and digital textbooks that would be fairly cheap, light and easy to ship over. I’m working on a micro-projector prototype – a tiny projector that can be loaded with images and videos, and doesn’t rely on the internet or electricity. It can be charged by a solar panel. I’m currently working on developing what materials should go on it, and looking for partner schools in Africa that are willing to help me pilot it.

Can you share a story of the impact you’ve seen Spread the Words have?
I traveled to Botswana a few years ago when I was 15, and visited the libraries I had helped to start when I was 12. It was truly amazing to see how the kids were using books in the classroom. The first school knew I was coming and had this huge parade in my honor. They were so thankful and excited about the books – they each had notes about what their favorite books were, and what they wanted to be when they grew up.

What were your favorite books?
As a kid I loved Chicka Chicka Boom Boom, the Berenstain Bears and Goodnight Moon, of course. My favorite in third grade was Esperanza Rising, which is about a girl who falls into hardship and has to support her family. I hadn’t read anything like that before and it really inspired me.

How do you balance school life and extra curricular activities?
I always find the time to send emails and collect more books. One Sunday a month I go to a local book sale and buy armfuls of books, and I get emails from people all the time saying they want to drop off books to me. In school, I run a lunchtime club once a week which works on promoting African literacy. We’re working on starting a new book drive.

Do you connect the work you do with your Jewish heritage or spirituality?
I definitely connect to the Jewish values of tzedakah and tikkun olam – I learned these ideas from synagogue, and from my parents. Helping the world is what I love to do, and I want to inspire others to do the same.

Get involved with Spread the Words! Click here to find out how you can help strengthen early childhood literacy in Africa.