Read This? You’re Lucky!

| April 4, 2014 | 0 Comments
Emily Moberly (third from left) with students from Honduras.

Emily Moberly (third from left) with students from Honduras.

If you can read this, you are appreciably literate. Not so for nearly 200,000 adults and children in San Diego who cannot read. While illiterate adults and children get plenty of help from the San Diego County on Literacy (SDCOL) year ‘round, on May 14 they’ll get even more via the organization’s 5th annual, “Eat. Drink. Read. A Culinary Event for Literacy.”

“Traveling Stories” (TS) is the SDCOL’s newbie in their family of county-wide programs. There, Emily Moberly oversees a small staff and plenty of volunteers who make it their business to read to children in “story tents” – free, easy, enjoyable. Story Tents, she says, helps kids develop strong literacy skills, confidence in their ability to read – and a love for reading. Those go a long way to combat the ills of illiteracy.

We wanted to hear more.

LW: Welcome to the S.D. Council on Literacy network. What took you so long?

EM: Thank you! 1 wish I’d connected with them sooner! I’ve been so focused on establishing Traveling Stories (TS) that I hadn’t much energy left to see how I could collaborate with groups like the Council.Now, TS is finally at a stage where I can devote more time to these partnerships.

My story starts with my own love for reading. – and, not to sound too cheesy, but the way that books put the whole world in the palm of my hand. Through reading I had great adventures and met extraordinary people. I explored the jungles of India; helped establish schools in remote Afghanistan; took my first trip to Africa; faced danger and solved mysteries.

And, reading made me want real life adventures of my own.

After college, I moved to Honduras to teach high school English. This was the first time that I lived in a place with almost no access to reading material. When I saw how the lack of books impacted my students. I decided on a solution – at least a start. So, when I went home for Christmas, I gathered up 40 books, which became, ‘Ms. Moberly’s Library.’

LW: What motivated you to establish TS – you’re still a teacher?

EM: I’m actually not a teacher; my background is in Journalism and Business. In Honduras, I realized there are many organizations taking care of peoples’ physical needs, but who’s investing in imaginations?

It was realizing that kids around the world do not have access to books that motivated me to start the nonprofit. I’ve always wanted to do something that would give a voice to the voiceless and to fight injustice. I thought I would do that through a career in journalism, but turns out I am doing it, instead, through books!
This is why I started TS; to invest in kids’ imaginations. At TS, we believe that books strengthen minds and inspire dreams; they also help people overcome the obstacles preventing them from becoming the best version of themselves.

LW: You’re inspiring children here; in seven other countries you’ve established libraries. What does a typical TS’ program consist of here?

EM: Locally, our program is the “Story Tent.” It’s really simple, but kids love it. We have tents at Farmers’ Markets and encourage kids to read to volunteers for “book bucks.” The kids then get to spend their book bucks on prizes. This motivates kids to read, and it also teaches them basics about money management. Our Story Tent in City Heights has about 40 kids every Saturday morning; on May 1, we’ll launch a second at the El Cajon Farmers’ Market. Last year, over 300 kids read with us. We want to double that number by the end of this year. We also offer a Story Tent affiliate opportunity for people who want to use our model to start a ST in their own neighborhood.

One of the coolest aspects about the Story Tent program is that most of the kids read to us. (Volunteers read to kids who cannot read yet.) We’ve created a safe, relaxed environment where kids are not afraid of messing up or getting a bad grade. As a result, they not only get better at reading but they gain confidence. The more they enjoy it, the more they read in their spare time.

LW: Who are the children you’re reading to? Where are your “Tents”?

EM: We will read anywhere, but we focus on communities where kids do not have access to books or that are considered low-income or at-risk.

I think one of the reasons that kids here and at our international libraries know about us is because of our consistency. We try not to miss any weeks of the Story Tent, and our international libraries are open the same time every day – no matter what. This allows us to become part of the kids’ routine. Lots of families come to the Famers’ Market because their kids can’t wait to read at the Tents.

We hold reading programs at City Heights Farmers’ Market; El Cajon Farmers’ Market; Nimule, South Sudan; El Tunco, El Salvador; El Transito, Nicaragua; and Cebu, Philippines.

LW: How do you choose which books to read?

EM: Most are donated. It’s important for kids to find books that they like, so we try to offer as much variety as possible. We have at least 200 books to choose from. They range in reading level from baby books to about 9th grade. We rotate the books every few weeks so that the kids always have new material.

LW: How strongly do you think – or have found – that poverty and illiteracy are connected?

EM: I’ve found there is a strong correlation between poverty and illiteracy. Literacy is the cornerstone for all learning and is fundamental for participation in today’s global society. Imagine not being able to read your medicine label, or a note that your child brings home from their teacher or instructions for filling out an application? More than 793 million people across the globe cannot read and write. Of all the illiterate people in the world today, two-thirds are female and more than 90 percent live in developing countries.

I believe that this relatively small investment in human capital (the human brain) can more than pay for itself. Through literacy we are empowering people to outsmart poverty.

LW: Do you follow up with the children you read to (i.e. any outcomes research)?

EM: Because our programs are held consistently (daily, weekly or bi-weekly) we see many of the same kids over and over. For instance, more than half of the 300 kids who visited the City Heights ST last year came at least twice a month. At our international libraries, many kids come every day after school.

Parents say that their kids are doing better in school – with their grades and their behavior. Kids who were reluctant readers become the most passionate supporters and actually help new visitors find books.

We are putting more emphasis on collecting outcomes data, so we will hopefully have even more information to share about the impact our programs are having on kids.

LW: You seek donations, of course – and volunteers?

EM: We rely on volunteers for everything. While our opportunities involving kids are most popular, we also need administrative, technological and fundraising assistance. Please visit our website to learn more (

“Eat. Drink. Read. A Culinary Event for Literacy,” (May 14) will benefit “Traveling Stories” along with the SDCOL’s other programs. Tickets are $60 per person. For event information, visit

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