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Teen empowers kindergartners with virtual reading in underserved communities amid COVID-19

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Nya Marshall is a high school junior in New York City juggling family, at-home learning and AP classes amid the coronavirus pandemic. Marshall has not let a pandemic, however, deter her drive to help her community during a time of crisis. The 17-year-old created a program that pairs teens with kindergarteners at a charter school in Harlem for a virtual reading experience while they are stuck at home.

“The basis of my program, the Buddy Reading Program, was to be able to make these students smile through COVID-19 and beyond that,” Marshall told Fox News. “I really want my program to be a template to be used after I graduate high school and far beyond, and, hopefully, for an in-person version after the pandemic is over.”

Marshall was able to secure funding for her program through the Bronx Council branch of Riley’s Way, a foundation centered around kindness and empathy that provides teen leaders with capital to develop programs that positively impact their communities. Ian Sandler and his wife, Mackenzie, started the foundation in 2014 in memory of their 9-year-old daughter and have been working to empower others ever since.

The foundation created a COVID fund for teens who are working to make a difference during this challenging time. Sandler explained to Fox News why Marshall’s program stood out.

“Nya is a passionate, natural leader who sees the positive side of every situation,” said Sandler. “Her project is unique because it exemplifies who she is an empathetic leader and highlights our values of kindness and connection.”

Marshall said that her goal was to target young students in a school in an underprivileged community and that Riley's Way had a great partnership with the Sisulu-Walker School in Harlem. Marshall was able to coordinate with principal Michelle Haynes on what she thought would be the most effective program.

“[It] really came down to connection-making and the importance of forming bonds through COVID-19,” Marshall explained. “These students are really young, 85 percent of their families live below the poverty line, and the pandemic has made it even worse for a lot of these families, considering that the majority of them have parents who are essential workers, and a few of these students have experienced homelessness in their lifetime.”

Principal Haynes explained to Fox News that Marshall’s Buddy Reading Program will nurture the critical skill of literacy, and is grateful the teens in the program are giving their time to such an important cause.

“There is a profound correlation between poverty and illiteracy,” said Haynes. “At Sisulu-Walker, we believe that literacy is everything and everywhere, and we strive to ensure poverty is not a barrier to literacy development. The Buddy Reading Program in partnership with the Riley’s Way Foundation will create a unique opportunity for our kindergarteners to continue to develop important literacy skills in a fun and engaging way while making meaningful connections with teens.”

Marshall added that the teens will be reading stories that are written by authors of color, so the kindergartners can see themselves represented in the books.

“One of my other passions is highlighting children's books written by authors of color because, for myself, my passion for reading came from really being able to see myself in books and feeling my voice was heard,” said Marshall. “My parents read me children's books where I would see myself in the pages. I really wanted to provide the opportunity to these young students, so they could feel an even greater connection to reading.”

For more on Nya Marshall and the Buddy Reading Program, watch the full video above.

Emily DeCiccio is a reporter and video producer for Fox News Digital Originals. Tweet her @EmilyDeCiccio.