Amazing Kid: Teen Helps Break the Chains of Poverty Through Literacy

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Riley Carney likes to go to the movies when she isn't writing novels or raising nearly $100,000 for her nonprofit organization. Credit: Wendy Carney

Riley Carney is just 16 years old, but she realized early on the link between literacy and poverty. At age 14, she founded Breaking the Chain, an organization that strives to provide educational opportunities for children living in poverty, both in the United States and abroad.

Her activism has helped to build two schools in Africa and create a literacy center for children in a battered women's shelter in her hometown of Englewood, Colo. Carney, who has raised more than $90,000 for her charitable projects, is a Build-A-Bear Workshop Huggable Heroes finalist. Now in its seventh year, the program recognizes outstanding kids for their contributions and community service by awarding 10 children a $7,500 scholarship each and another $2,500 to donate to their pet charitable causes. Winners will be announced June 16, at a national press conference.

Carney recently talked with ParentDish about her fund-raising efforts, the two novels she has written and how literacy can change the world.

ParentDish: How did you get interested in literacy and its connection to poverty rates?

Riley Carney:
I've always been concerned with the welfare of children, since they can't advocate for themselves. There are so many tragic things that happen to children around the world and they have no control over their own destinies. The cycle of exploitation and poverty can be broken through education, and the most important thing we can do to help children take control over their own lives is to provide them with the ability to read. Because there is a correlation between literacy and poverty, creating literacy opportunities is the key to eradicating poverty and exploitation.

PD: What was your first personal experience with poverty?
RC: My first contact with poverty was when I helped out at a soup kitchen with my mother when I was 10. I remember being very upset when I saw a small girl there who was about 6 years old, who was very thin and frightened. I wanted to help her, but knew there was nothing that I could do.

PD: The amount of money you raised is quite staggering. How do you do it?
I created a website for Breaking the Chain, and made two different videos to create awareness, which I showed at assemblies at my high school/middle school. [Also], by selling T-shirts, which I designed, by conducting a "jeans day" at my high school -- students paid to wear jeans for the day -- and by mailing out a large number of letters to members of the community.

I also brought in a speaker from Free The Children, a 19-year-old from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, who shared his devastating experiences as a child soldier. I wanted my fellow students to be aware of the unimaginable things that are happening right now to children around the world. I still send out mailings, and just recently I began applying to corporations for grants so that Breaking the Chain can get some long-term, more significant funding for our new program, Bookin'It, which places books into classrooms in low-literacy, underfunded schools in the U.S.

PD: Have you been to visit the schools you helped to build in Kenya and Sierra Leone?
Although I would love to visit the schools in Kenya and Sierra Leone, and hope to, someday, it was more important to me to put those funds toward building the schools and providing the villages with water purification systems, alternative income (sources) like goats and sewing machines for the adults so the children can stay in school, and basic medical supplies.

I do visit and speak at many of the schools that we give books to here in the U.S. I talk to the students about literacy and encourage them to take ownership of their education, to risk failure in order to pursue their dreams and to realize that they aren't too young to reach out and help someone in need.

PD: Tell us how literacy helps to break the chains of poverty, from your perspective.

It is virtually impossible to pull yourself out of poverty without the ability to read. The biggest obstacle is the ability to find a job and have a source of income. Even the most insignificant of daily actions become impossible -- reading a job placement ad, filling out a job application, reading a sign, an apartment lease or labels on food or medication. Those of us who can read aren't even aware of how profoundly our ability to read affects every minute of our lives.

I think United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said it best when he said: "Literacy is not just about reading and writing; it is about respect, opportunity and development."

PD: It sounds to us like you have a passion for reading.

I do have a passion for reading, and I read as much as I can. From the moment I was born my mom would read to me. My love for reading also created a love of writing. I have written seven novels, two of which have been published. I wrote the first three books of a five-book fantasy series for ages 9 to 15 when I was 15, and I wrote the last two books in that series and the first two books in a urban fantasy trilogy for teens when I was 16. I'm working on the third book in the trilogy right now. I give a portion of my proceeds from my book sales to Breaking the Chain.

PD: How have your parents supported you in your efforts with Breaking the Chain?
My parents have been very supportive of my efforts with Breaking the Chain. The most important thing that they have done is to make me aware of the world around me and of my ability to evoke positive change in the world. My mom has also helped me with many of the legalities/paperwork that goes with running a tax-exempt nonprofit. My brother, who is four years older than me, has also helped by becoming the Chairman of the Board, since I am under 18, when BTC became a full-fledged tax-exempt nonprofit a year ago.

PD: We're sure you don't have a lot of spare time, but what do you like to do when you aren't saving the world?

When I'm not doing school work or working on Breaking the Chain, I am usually reading or writing. I also run or do yoga every day, and I usually spend some time playing basketball in the driveway just for fun. I love spending time with my family and friends, and I love movies.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.