For years, a Unity Sunshine preschool program in Troy had tried to launch a library to promote literacy and supplement classroom work, but it never grew beyond 50 books on a small shelf.
Then came Kristin Connolly, a 16-year-old from Our Lady of Victory parish in Troy. She took on the task of expanding the library as a way to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest achievement in Scouting.
A year and a half later, the school has eight bookcases filled with children's books. Students check out books in designated tote bags and receive stickers when they successfully return them. Literacy volunteers read to classes every week.
Kristin is responsible for all of this. She could have submitted the materials for her award a long time ago - she's racked up more than 300 service hours on the initiative, which she calls "Blossom with Books" - but she's still working on it.
"It became more to me than just a Gold Award," she told The Evangelist. "I became really invested in it. [The school is] so thankful for it."
Start them young
A junior at Troy High School and an aspiring teacher, Kristin discovered the Unity Sunshine inner-city preschool and early intervention program through online research.
"I wanted to hit [children] while they were young to get them loving reading," Kristin said. The preschool "had nothing, and it's a lot of kids that don't come from the best home lives."
It wasn't until after Kristin held a few book drives at her parish and local libraries that she realized she should record the hours she dedicated to the cause and put them toward her Gold Award.
"I sort of just fell in love with the project," she explained. "It's taken up so much of my time, so how could I not love it?"
Between the drives, going door-to-door to about 200 houses and picking up donations solicited by fliers, Kristin collected more than 8,000 children's books. Two car wash fundraisers she ran brought in about $250, with which she bought carpets, duffel bags and building supplies for bookshelves. She built four shelving units on her own and went to the preschool every week to read books and run related art projects.
Kathryn Capalbo, assistant director at the Unity Sunshine location that has benefited from Kristin's work, called the teenager "amazing. The teachers just loved her." The children "had huge fun and were asking when she'd come back again.
"We all think that she's in college," Ms. Capalbo continued, laughing. "She's very put-together and she's a very strong young lady. She's always prepared, she's always on time and she always has a smile on her face."
Kristin's most recent contribution was connecting Literacy Volunteers of Rensselaer County to the school; a handful of volunteers who are employees at a local hotel now read books selected by Kristin to the children on their lunch hours.
"I just realized that I won't be able to reach out to the kids when I'm at college," said Kristin, though she plans on visiting the preschool once a month for as long as she can. "When [the children] go home, they won't necessarily be read to."
Kristin feels strongly about early literacy intervention in urban environments and the impact of teaching: "You sort of change the kid's life. All of my teachers have had a huge influence on me."
At school, Kristin is in soccer and track and is involved with the musical, chorus and service clubs. In her spare time, she likes singing, art, shopping and movies. She worked this summer packing boxes for her brother's athletic supplies business.
She's the only Scout left in her original troop, which formed when she was in first grade.
"It really was just a fun thing to do [back then]," she said, "but as I got older, I really realized how much Girl Scouts can affect the community."
At church, Kristin is a junior member of the pastoral council. She's also been a lector for a year.
"It shows that it's not just the older generation that's a part of the Church," Kristin said. "A lot of my friends think that sometimes it's not the cool thing to do, but sometimes you just have to listen to what your heart says [and] don't be afraid of what other people think. You have to do what makes you happy."
After Kristin was confirmed last year, she said she felt "more a part of the Church."
Kristin still brings about 200 new books to the preschool each month and reorganizes the shelves so toddlers can reach seasonal books.