Four teenagers – all juniors at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney – have launched an effort to get books into the hands of disadvantaged students in Montgomery County and the rest of Maryland.

In the past year, “A Book For My Birthday,” the charity started by Alexia Ayuk, 16; Danny Cummins, 17; Brent Smith, 17; and Caleigh O’Connor, 17, donated more than 8,500 books to students who would otherwise not have access to the reading material.

“We distributed books to disadvantaged elementary schools in Montgomery County and hope to expand our efforts,” Alexia said. “Our passion and drive stems from the issue of education. We want to be a part of the change to help motivate young readers.”

Alexia said she and her classmates “were brainstorming ideas on ways to get better involved in our community.” She said that the book donation plan came about “because we are alarmed at the illiteracy rate in America.”

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that about 32 million adults in the United States cannot read. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that 29 percent of Americans over the age of 16 read at a “basic” level and an additional 14 percent read at a “below basic” level. A study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that more than 70 percent of incarcerated persons cannot read above a fourth-grade level.

The name, “A Book For My Birthday,” came about, Alexia said, because “we believe all children deserve a book on their birthday.” Brent said that while “it would be nice to have a gift and access to books on your birthday,” the group “is not primarily focused on birthdays.”

“We leave the distribution up to the school’s library or media center to decided whether or not to make the books available or give them out on a student’s actual birthday,” Danny added.

He also noted that the foursome originally thought about donating books to schools, but soon expanded its outreach to hospitals and shelters.

Donations come from individuals as well as from book fairs, donations, and organizations such as Discover Books, an Ohio-based company that resells and donates good quality children’s books to non-profit organizations.

The books are stored and sorted at Danny’s house. During the school year, the books are distributed to school libraries and media centers. “We donate our books to Title One elementary schools,” Alexia said.

Title One schools are those identified by the U.S. government as having large numbers or high percentages of students coming from low-income families.

In the summer, when school is not in session, the books are donated to hospitals and emergency shelters.

Alexia said that she is “not surprised” at the support her group has received. “People really do want to help,” she noted.

The students all noted that the education they receive in a Catholic school has prompted their outreach efforts.

“Obviously in a Catholic School, it is engrained in us to serve our community, and that is what stoked me to get involved,” Danny said. “It is a very rewarding experience to know we are helping kids.”

For Brent, by participating in A Book For My Birthday, “we can see our faith in action. We can see the good we are doing.”

“Reading was a large part of my childhood and it is rewarding to know that reading itself is not dead,” he added.

Right now, “A Book For My Birthday” is collecting books for students in kindergarten through the eighth grade. The students noted that there is a particular need for Spanish-language books.

To donate, visit The students said that while they most certainly welcome book donations, monetary donations have a greater impact. Brent noted that because of the group’s association with book wholesalers and other distributers, they have greater buying power, and are able to purchase more books for the same amount of money that an individual would pay to purchase one book.

“I was always taught that knowledge is power and knowledge comes from education. As a Catholic school student my whole life, I have learned how much I can contribute to my community,” Alexia said. “I learned in Catholic school about our baptismal call to serve others. That is what’s important, and that is what (A Book for My Birthday) is all about.”