Six years ago, when choosing a bat mitzvah project, Becca Lerman of Point Breeze turned to her past reading difficulties for inspiration.
She wanted to give back and help local children who struggle to read, so she began recording children's books on cassette tapes, a project that has grown over the years with help from family and friends to more than 650 books.
"Many of these children do not have parents to read to them, and the books on tape serve as their reader," she said.
Ms. Lerman is a fluent reader today because she received extra help.
"I was always bad at reading and had trouble with reading comprehension. I was sent to a reading specialist, and my parents took an extra watch over me to make sure I learned to read smoothly."
Ms. Lerman, 18, a recent graduate of The Ellis School, volunteers with Children's Books on Tape, a nonprofit that reaches out to disadvantaged children by providing elementary-level recorded books on tape to schools.
The organization was founded in 2000 by siblings Samuel and Faren Silverman in Florida. Nina Silverman, CEO of Children's Books on Tape, said Ms. Lerman has done "a phenomenal job for us. And it's not often that you find a young person come forward and organize friends and local organizations to develop a finished product like this and place it in classrooms."
Ms. Lerman's recordings were donated as Listening Libraries in two classrooms at local schools in the federal Title 1 program, Pittsburgh Minadeo PreK-5 in Squirrel Hill and Kelly Elementary School in Wilkinsburg. Title 1 schools serve some low-income children. Each library has 50 books.
Her other recordings are among the more than 4,000 recorded books donated through Children's Books on Tape to elementary schools in Florida.
The books in each Listening Library are packaged with a corresponding tape in a plastic storage bag with a handle.
Ms. Lerman's parents and other donors provided the books, and a core group of people helped her. Children's Books on Tape supplied the remaining materials.
Ms. Lerman said the recordings must be flawless. At first, she had to re-record a lot, but now she knows the script by heart and can repeat it with ease.
At the beginning of the recording, the reader welcomes the listener, states the title and author and demonstrates the sound that indicates the turning of a page. The sounds are chosen by the reader and vary depending on the theme of the book. At the end of the recording, the reader notes the moral or lesson of the book.
All of the tapes have yellow labels that indicate the book title, author and the reader's name. That allows children to choose books by their favorite readers.
"After the many hours of working on producing the recorded tapes and organizing them into a listening library, I was finally able to see my hard work pay off," Ms. Lerman said.
Minadeo autistic support teacher Joyce Hebda uses the library for students in grades 3 through 5. The tapes Ms. Lerman donated are part of the collection of recorded books in the listening center in the elementary school.
"Anytime a kid can listen and hear and track words in a story, it's going to help them read," she said.
She said the books are fun, interesting and hold the kids' attention. But her students go through a lot of books throughout the year. Ms. Hebda now records many books on her own to add to the collection. She said it's difficult to find cassette tapes and hopes that trading recordings for a new batch could be a possibility in the future.
In May, Ms. Lerman helped deliver a second Listening Library to a second-grade classroom at Kelly.
Ms. Lerman said she was excited to make the delivery while the children were there. "We were met by a classroom of eager learners on the other side of the door. The children were very curious, and continued to ask a range of questions about the project," she said.
"The students kept wondering when they could start using it. ... I have never felt so many different kinds of happiness all at once. ... That's why I love and continue to do this project."
Ms. Lerman plans to attend Penn State University at University Park in the fall as a business major.She hopes to form a club there, where she and fellow students can record books and start a Listening Library in the State College area.
"I have taken many things away from this project. I have learned that I am very fortunate. I had the privilege of a great education. ... I also learned that when I get tired of learning or frustrated, I have to think back to these students who are so excited to learn but are often met with obstacles, like a lack of supplies, preventing them from doing so," Ms. Lerman said.
Katie Foglia: email@example.com, 412-263-4903.