High School Student Takes Action to Improve Literacy in Juvenile Detention Centers
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High School Student Takes Action to Improve Literacy in Juvenile Detention Centers

During her Climate Leaders Fellowship project, Carla was inspired to reach out to the local juvenile detention center in her community and was shocked to learn what materials they desperately need.

The fellowship, offered in a collaboration between Stanford University’s Deliberative Democracy Lab and the Rustic Pathways Foundation, challenged students like Carla to design a project customized to their community’s needs and then join in online sessions with other participants to learn and share ideas.

Learn what donations Carla collected and the incredible results of her project in the interview below!

Carla Roberts
Age 17
Sequoia High School
San Carlos, California

What issue did you decide to focus on and why?

I have always been fascinated by criminal justice and believe that criminal justice reform is one of the most pressing issues facing our country today.

I reached out to Hillcrest Juvenile Hall, a facility in my hometown, to learn more about the conditions and ask what I could do to help. I spoke to the education liaison and was shocked to learn that Hillcrest was in desperate need of more reading materials – both academic and recreational.

Children in juvenile detention centers already have exponentially high rates of functional illiteracy, and the fact that state facilities are perpetuating those trends horrified me.

How did you address this issue in your project?

I quickly gathered up the books my family no longer used, but had the nagging feeling that I should be doing a lot more. Considering I was able to collect roughly a hundred from my own home, I knew there were so many more books out there that would otherwise end up in landfills or recycled.

This prompted me to start a drive to collect books for Hillcrest and other local juvenile detention facilities. I talked to friends and teachers and lobbied to appear on the city council agenda. As donations began to pour in, I realized I needed a larger platform and more help.

A couple of friends joined me in collecting and making drop offs, and we adopted the name ‘Bookshelf for Success’.

What were the results?

Bookshelf has since brought over $3000 worth of novels, textbooks, and other literature with a wide range of reading levels to Hillcrest, and we are working to continue our efforts with other facilities.

My hope is to establish a Bookshelf Club at different high schools throughout San Mateo County to bring juvenile prison reform to the public eye.

Throughout the process of expanding Bookshelf, affecting tangible change and connecting those with resources to those in need helped me to understand the value of organization and community involvement. It also made me realize that there is room for environmental justice in every movement, including criminal justice.

How did participating in the Climate Leaders Fellowship make you feel?

I found it incredibly gratifying and motivating to participate in the Climate Leaders Fellowship. Hearing about the type of work that other Fellows were doing was really inspiring to me, and made me realize the interconnectedness of socio-environmental issues.  I feel very grateful to have participated in such a program.

What do you enjoy doing for fun?

I love hiking near my home and playing with my (many) pets including my goats, Dale & Donkey. I also love to listen to music and spend too much of my paycheck on concerts.

Do you have any ideas about your future career aspirations?

I plan to major in criminal justice and eventually pursue a law degree. I would love to be a criminal defense lawyer, especially for those belonging to underprivileged communities that are disproportionately harmed by the US justice system.

Do you have advice for other students who want to make a positive impact? 

I don’t think you can go wrong with starting local! I wouldn’t have imagined the need for matching youth with unused books in my area specifically until I looked into the issue for this Fellowship, which was eye-opening for me.

The upcoming fellowship cycle launches in March, and the application deadline is February 5.  For more information, please visit our Climate Leaders Fellowship program page.

About the Author

Kayla Anzalone