Maria Keller: Helping at-risk children discover the joy of reading

Maria Keller - Founder of Reed Indeed (Source: Sun Sailor)

Maria Keller - Founder of Reed Indeed (Source: Sun Sailor)

What do you get when you combine a passion for reading, empathy for those less fortunate than yourself, and awareness that you’re part of a global community? You get Maria Keller, a 14-year old member of GenerationZ. She’s on a mission to provide books for children who don’t have access to them, and a lot of people are starting to take notice, including CNN, which named her one of its "Young Heroes" in 2014. 

Maria started pursuing her goal when she was only eight years old. She founded Read Indeed,  a non-profit that gathers and distributes books to at-risk children. Six years later, Read Indeed’s accomplishments include the words “global” and “millions.” And Maria is just getting started! By the time she turns 18, she intends to provide books to children in “every state in the U.S. and every country in the world!”

Maria embodies so many of the wonderful qualities attributed to GenerationZ. She’s compassionate, altruistic, practical, a self-starter and, obviously, a talented problem-solver. But don’t take my word for it. Here are Maria’s answers, in her own words, to some questions I recently posed about her generation, her goals, and how she has managed, at such a young age, to provide assistance to so many of her peers:

Read Indeed seems to be very organized. How did you create your infrastructure (the Board of Directors, Youth Advisory Council, individuals who help with various tasks, warehouse, etc.)?

Frankly, I learned along the way what would work to keep everything organized and working well. Plus my parents have helped in terms of the legality issues of a 501c3. I have a lot of young kids/teens who want to help, so I created a youth board to give some of them a bigger voice in the organization. The adult board is needed to help give me direction and brainstorm new ideas to grow Read Indeed.

Was there a moment - or a particular book you were reading - that made you say:  “I need to provide books to other kids.” If so, what was it about that book that inspired you? 

I've always loved to read. And I realized when I was in 3rd grade that some kids didn't read as much as me. I would try and stay in from recess so that I could read on the beanbag chairs in my classroom. Not a lot of kids wanted to do that. I went to a grade school where most kids had plenty of books in their homes, so when I learned there were a lot of kids in low income neighborhoods who had never owned a book or had a bedtime story read to them, I was simply amazed and thought that it simply wasn't fair. I began researching and learned how important reading is in terms of a child's success in school. When I learned this, I knew I needed to do something about this issue. 


Have you done much public speaking? Who invites you the most?

I have done quite a bit of public speaking. I speak at different schools about the importance of reading to kids, and I've spoken at churches, and community groups such at Rotary Club meetings, etc. 


 Tell me about the experience of sending books to kids in other countries. For example, how do you identify the people you send books to outside the U.S.?

Typically we receive applications from groups/organizations in need of books. Based on those applications, I determine the validity of the organization and their great need of books. Because shipping is so unbelievably expensive, I've tried to partner with different groups, piggybacking on their shipment of goods, to get the books to these groups. Sometimes we have to say 'no' simply because it is too expensive to ship if we don't have a partner in their region.


How many books do you need to meet your goal of contributing to every state and every country by the time you are 18?

I'm striving for a next goal of 2 million books. It's not so much about how many books, but the appropriate books. Some organizations only request 1 book per child, others want more.   


You clearly have a global vision for Read Indeed. What’s the connection you feel to children in other countries? 

The literacy rate is extraordinarily poor in many nations. I would love to help connect these children to books. Many of these kids suffer unbearable living situations, hindering their ability to go to school. Books can help these children find an escape and better their lives.   


A lot of people want to create something like Read Indeed, but might not know how to get started. What advice would you give them?

Take it slow. Do your research. And don't be afraid to ask for help. So many people in this world are good, kind, giving people and will be willing to help in whatever way they can. The key is to ask.


Tell me about your generation. What kind of impact do they want to have on the world? What kind of lives do you think they want to live? What do you think they feel are the biggest challenges that need solving in the world? 

I see a lot of my peers at Orono High School interested in giving back to others. They are sincere about doing so. They aren't doing it to get another line item on their college resume. They truly see the world as a place that needs our help. We are the generation that can truly make an impact on this world. 

If people want to get involved with Reed Indeed, what should they do?

 We are always in need of monetary donations to help buy brand new books for kids. They can also hold gently used book drives in their communities. If they don't live in the Twin Cities, I can help them find organizations in their own communities that need the books. 

What's the best (most positive) feedback you've gotten from someone who has received books from Reed Indeed?

 I receive lots of thank you notes from children who receive books. One little girl wrote: "I want to be just like you when I grow up." It doesn't get much more honorable than that.

So true.

Are Millennials and GenZ changing advertising? Yes!

I guest lectured at St. Cloud State University recently and and was asked this question:

Can advertising be a win-win for business and consumers?

This presentation is my response.

David Burstein - Fast Future, Millennials and Empathy

I recently had an illuminating conversation with David Burstein, Millennial author, film-maker, non-profit founder, scholar, and a lot of other equally impressive adjectives.

David D. Burstein

David D. Burstein

I was inspired to reach out to him after reading his book Fast Future:  How the Millennial Generation is Shaping Our World

In Fast Future, David puts his peers under a microscope and studies their motivations, challenges and growing success, while bringing into focus the kind of world they are working to build. (You can also check out his TedX talk from 2012.)

Chatting with David also led to clarity about something that has confused me recently regarding Millennials. More on that in a minute.

During our conversation, I was particularly struck by one of David’s insights: 

“It is possible for people 13, 14 or 15 years old to build something of real consequence.”

He made this comment while answering a question about whether anything in particular had happened in his formative years that contributed to his ability to succeed in driving social change so early in life.

In response, he shared an experience that took place during his sophomore year of high school, which he felt was a catalyst for his ambition and rapid success.

While in 10th grade, he and some friends decided to create a film festival. Despite not having any experience or resources, they were able to quickly raise 50k and plan the logistics of the event. Unsure whether anyone would even be interested in participating, they were amazed when film submissions flowed in. Even more surprising, the submissions revealed that very young people around the world were doing impressive work to transform their communities.

From that experience, David concluded that:

1.  Access to resources and possession of subject matter expertise are not always necessary for creating social change. Instead, the ability to identify a challenge, form a team of motivated peers, devise a solution, and craft a plan for implementation can be better predictors for success. (Which seems to be something that Millennials and their younger siblings, GenerationZ, are instinctively good at.)

2. No one is too young to create solutions. No one. As David put it: 

“We learned that it was actually possible as a young person to do something ourselves!”

He also emphasized that having a vested interest in the change you are trying to make is equally critical for success, because:

“You can’t effect change unless you have a personal connection to it.”

Perhaps that’s why so many young people are focusing their first social change efforts on solving problems in their own communities Like 13-year old Kelvin Doe from Sierra Leone, who created a battery that provides electricity to his whole neighborhood.

Makes sense. They have clearer insights about the challenges faced by their friends and families and, therefore, a personal investment in seeing change made.  

So everything David told me about Millennials, including his own goals and approach to creating social change, resonated with what I’ve read, intuited and experienced in my interactions with them.

But here’s the weird part:  It’s in direct opposition to a meme that’s been floating around the last several years, one which has gained some momentum:

Millennials lack empathy (the ability to identify, understand and care about the feelings of others), say critics (many of whom are academics). They’re just too narcissistic to focus on anyone but themselves. They’re only concerned with becoming rich and famous.

Recent  Time Magazine  cover story that attempted (and failed) to understand GenY.

Recent Time Magazine cover story that attempted (and failed) to understand GenY.

Now, I’m no scholar. I’m no social scientist. But I do live in the world and interact daily with the generation in question, and I sometimes read things, and here's my professional opinion about this meme:

It’s a load of crap.

And it’s not just slightly off-kilter crap. Rather, it totally misses what may be the defining characteristic of Millennials:  They don't lack empathy. They are the embodiment of empathy!

Want proof?

Consider this:

-  73% of Indian Millennials and 83% of Chinese Millennials feel that they and their peers are prioritizing “we” over “me." (SOURCE: Trendspotter)

- Youth in the Middle East are leading an initiative to teach peaceful conflict resolution. 

- Earlier this year, Dominican youth stood up for the rights of their Haitian peers.

New research indicates that Millennials are not only being misunderstood when they're called narcissistic, they are, in fact, incredibly generous. 

- Oh, and some additional research now debunks the previous research that claimed Millennials are more narcissistic than previous generations.

Building something of real consequence. Being personally invested in making social change. Thinking collectively versus individually. That doesn't sound like entitlement to me. It sounds like momentum.

As David Burstein says, the future is here, and it's moving fast. 




Jagriti Yatra: India's Millennial Entrepreneurs

I launched this blog by stating my belief that some sort of universal shift is underway. In other words, the world’s equilibrium has been disturbed. And according to the laws of physics, when equilibrium is disturbed, something gets set in motion. In this case, it’s Millennials. Literally.

Picture this:

Teams of motivated, insightful young people decide to solve the world’s biggest problems. They work individually to develop ideas. Then, they meet up in a city and board a train that has been outfitted with everything from sleeping and dining facilities to spaces equipped with presentation technology.

The train makes its way across the country for a week or two, during which the collaborators share ideas, enhance each other’s thinking, and reflect. Periodically, the train stops so they can visit local communities and engage with entrepreneurs and visionaries.

Finally, they arrive at a destination on the other side of the country and head back to their homes with a clearer vision of what they can do to improve their communities.

These journeys are starting to happen all over the world. In fact, two took place recently, one in India and one in the United States. Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with organizers from both, and I came away inspired and even more convinced that civilization (or, as Millennial author David Burstein calls it, the “human operating system”) is experiencing a massive re-boot.

My first conversation was with Ashutosh Kumar, the Executive Director of Jagriti Yatra, a transcontinental train journey that takes “hundreds of India’s highly motivated youth on a fifteen-day national odyssey and introduces them to the unsung heroes of India.”


The group’s first journey took place in 1997, which was the 50th anniversary of India’s independence. The purpose was to travel across the country and observe the changes that had taken place over the 50 years.

The focus changed in 2007, Ashutosh explained, because “the organizers realized that India had 704 million people below the age of 30, meaning it would soon become the world’s most youthful country.” (Even surpassing China!)

“They also realized that India was producing 10 million college graduates each year, but only adding about 3.5 million jobs.”

That meant millions of motivated, educated youth were entering the job market every year unable to find employment. So the Jagriti leaders decided to focus on empowering India’s youth to become entrepreneurs, hoping they would, in turn, invent new economic engines that would reduce the employment gap, create a sustainable middle class, and help end India’s crippling cycle of poverty.

Realizing that the majority of India’s youth are concentrated outside urban centers, the Jagriti team crafted a train route that would connect India’s college-educated Millennial youth with their peers around the country – especially those in the remotest areas - to learn about their real needs and challenges and to create business opportunities.

Some of India's Millennial entrepreneurs.

Some of India's Millennial entrepreneurs.

It’s working! Since 2007, over 200 new businesses have been launched! In addition, Jagriti Yatra's success has caught the attention of international corporations like Google, which has led to plans for more journeys. In fact, the next one departs in December.

The future looks very bright for India, thanks to initiatives like Jagriti Yatra. If its youth are given access to education and technology, receive continued support from government and business leaders, and are empowered to identify solutions, they can create new engines of prosperity for their country.

Consulting and collaborating on the train.

Consulting and collaborating on the train.

That’s good news for everyone, because with 700+ million youth actively working to create a new middle class, the momentum of India will extend far beyond its borders. The result? India’s Millennials can play a leading role in transforming the global economy, and more importantly, the world itself.