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Start Lighthouse’s impact on childhood literacy

In a Q&A with the MREF, Start Lighthouse co-founder Rina Madhani shares the charity’s memorable contributions and its focus on childhood literacy in NYC.

Start Lighthouse is a New York-based organization dedicated to advancing childhood literacy through a social justice lens. It services 5,200 students across eight Title 1 schools within the Bronx, one of the poorest congressional districts in the entire country. The nonprofit was chosen as a 2023 MREF Race Around the World for Education grant recipient.


Start Lighthouse has distributed over 21,015 brand-new multicultural books, with a value of more than $400,385. Start Lighthouse connects children to books through Literacy Hubs and Literacy Adventures – immersive experiences led by BIPOC authors and illustrators which are hosted onsite at NYC public schools. Literacy Adventures are designed to revitalize the love of reading by allowing students to curate their own library from new, free, and engaging multicultural books that reflect culturally diverse lives.


[MREF] Describe what inspired you to launch Start Lighthouse.


[Madhani] My life has changed dramatically over the past three years. Before the pandemic, I was an elementary school teacher and I knew we would witness an intense academic loss, especially regarding reading. So, I assembled a women-led team during the pandemic, and we delivered over 7,000 brand-new books to the homes of low-income families in NYC.


Today at Start Lighthouse, we advance childhood literacy through a social justice lens. We build home libraries with brand-new multicultural books, empower family members and caregivers through community-based workshops to become reading partners with their children, and revitalize literacy culture at Title I schools by leading immersive experiences and reviving defunct library spaces.


[MREF] What makes Start Lighthouse unique?

[Madhani] We rehabilitate abandoned and defunct library spaces within Title I public schools to build full-time Literacy Hubs, providing yearlong programming throughout the academic day, after school, and in the summer.


As our work progressed – we made a shocking discovery in every school we worked in. School libraries are often inoperative and entirely abandoned spaces in the heart of our public schools. Only 45% of schools in NYC have school libraries. The truth is that many of these spaces are defunct and unused.


This discovery prompted us to act again. We have partnered with eight schools in the Bronx and will bring those libraries back to life. We have reinvented the traditional library to create a living literacy space. Students build their home libraries, explore careers, and engage with authors and illustrators. The beauty of this is that the authors and illustrators look like the students we serve. We provide high-quality materials and a safe space to gather during the day, after-school, on Saturdays, and in the summer. Owning a book won’t require a sacrifice of food or rent money.


[MREF] What is one of Start Lighthouse’s most memorable contributions?


[Madhani] One of Start Lighthouse’s most memorable contributions has been the evolution of its partnerships with P.S. 5 Port Morris, an elementary and middle school within the Bronx. Since March 2020, Start Lighthouse has partnered with P.S. 5 Port Morris to put the power of reading back in the hands of students and their families. Start Lighthouse started by hosting pop-up events and distributing over 1,000 customized literacy toolkits in the first year of the pandemic. When P.S. 5 Port Morris reopened, Start Lighthouse supported teachers in building inclusive learning spaces and bringing together authors, community activists, and youth leaders. Start Lighthouse has helped build robust home libraries comprising of over 35 brand-new multicultural books for over 636 students. Last year, Start Lighthouse reactivated an abandoned and defunct library space of 16 years within P.S. 5 Port Morris to establish its inaugural Literacy Hub, where they provide programming yearlong.


[MREF] Could you share one of Start Lighthouse’s short-term goals?


[Madhani] By 2025, Start Lighthouse will have transformed five defunct library spaces into full-time Literacy Hubs across the Bronx, allowing us to serve 6,000 students and their families, including parents and caregivers.


[MREF] What is the best way to get involved with Start Lighthouse?


[Madhani] You can get involved with Start Lighthouse by visiting our website and learning more about available in-person and virtual volunteer opportunities.


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