When Jiya Patel and Ava Surendorff, both high school juniors at Mercy McAuley High School, heard about a need in their community, they took action. By collaborating with local organizations and leading the charge, they’ve helped empower teachers and students at another local school, LEAP Academy.
LEAP Academy provides a dual-language learning environment for preschool through the sixth grade, serving both native English and native Spanish speakers. The Spanish language instruction makes their programs ideal for many ESL learners. The school first opened for the 2017–2018 school year, but even years later, in 2021, it lacked something important, a critical tool for young learners working to master new languages: a library.
“We actually found out about LEAP Academy’s lack of a library through a [LEAP Academy] teacher,” says Surendorff. She and Patel took the problem as a personal challenge. “We want to bring awareness and help provide the opportunities [ESL] students deserve,” Surendorff explains.
It’s a subject close to home for both young women. Patel’s father emigrated from India, and Surendorff’s father emigrated from South Africa. As second-generation immigrants, they understand the value of LEAP Academy’s mission better than many, and they decided they could do something to help.
Instead of donating, or simply asking friends and family to contribute, the duo launched head-first into a full fund-raising drive. They began by partnering with the Blue Manatee Literacy Project. The organization aims to provide reading materials for under-resourced students and schools, primarily through book sales. For every book the organization sells, they donate a book.
To fill the shelves at LEAP Academy, the fund-raiser needed at least $16,000. That would provide 1,500 to 2,000 books. Equipped with new ways to help fill the shelves of LEAP Academy’s library, Surendorff and Patel went to work.
“We fund-raised at school,” Patel says. “We also went to a local Spanish cultural festival. People could buy a book or donate [directly].”
They reached out to the wider community and spread the word. It took months of consistent effort and patience, but through drives at Mercy McAuley, community events, and private donations, they achieved their goal. LEAP Academy would get its library.
Things came together quickly once the funds were available. The mayor attended the library’s grand opening in March along with Surendorff and Patel, who were invited for an early preview of the finished space. The teens were thrilled to see the payoff of their hard work in person. Books filled the shelves. The library is the heart of a school for many students, and now LEAP Academy’s is full.
The two high school juniors have already impacted hundreds of lives through this project, but it’s been as inspiring for them as it has been for the community that rallied behind them. This won’t be the last time either student steps up to make a difference.
“We have a passion for literacy,” Surendorff admits. “We’re actually hoping to help another library.”