A joyous moment at a local StoryTent, where volunteer Phoenix Vo reads one-on-one with Rukia Omar. Photo courtesy Emily Moberly/Traveling Stories
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International nonprofit brings books to kids

ENCINITAS — Emily Moberly has loved books ever since she was a little girl and her mom tucked her in at night with a bedtime story. She used that love of books to create her nonprofit organization Traveling Stories and help bring that same love to thousands of kids all over the world.

Moberly started Traveling Stories almost 10 years ago, in 2010. She said it all began during a stint teaching high school in Honduras. One day while her class was writing an essay, she passed the time by reading one of her favorite books, “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“This girl finished her paper early and she turned it in, and she started making fun of me for reading,” Moberly, a self-proclaimed book nerd, said in a phone call. “And I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Let me tell you about this book, let me tell you about Jem and Atticus.’ I had read it multiple times, so it was more like I was talking about my best friends. And so, before I knew it the whole class was listening, which doesn’t happen very much with teenagers.”

Moberly said that led her to ask what everyone’s favorite book was and only one student gave an answer. Everyone else said they’d never read for fun; they’d only ever read textbooks for school. Moberly said when she dug in to why that was it was because they didn’t have access to books, aside from a small school library and a bookstore at the mall.

‘No wonder they didn’t love reading, they had never had that opportunity to fall in love with a book or a character, or get lost in Narnia,” Moberly said.

Over Christmas break, Moberly decided to fill a suitcase with books she thought her students would like and she brought them back and had story time every day. She said eventually every student found a book they enjoyed — and it changed their whole world.

“My students, when they connected with a book that they really resonated with, they fell in love with reading,” she said. “And it changed so many things, it changed their attitude in my class, it changed their outlook about their future and what they wanted to study in college.”

Moberly, who said she had always wanted to be a part of something bigger than herself, said it was seeing her kids’ reaction to reading that let her know this was it.

“It was just sharing my love for reading with people and watching how that could inspire them to be their best self,” she said.

Moberly said she talked to everyone she could about her revelation — even her mailman and her bank teller — and they all encouraged her to start a nonprofit. In 2009 she sent a Facebook message to about 50 friends and family asking for help to raise $1,500 for the necessary filing fees, and by the end of the week she had the money.

Alas Traveling Stories was born. Moberly said initially they were more internationally focused, opening eight libraries around the world in places that don’t have access to books. She said then people started asking what she was doing for kids in America. It evolved into a program for at-risk kids, with the mission being to empower kids to outsmart poverty by getting them to fall in love with reading. In 2011, Traveling Stories created the StoryTent: a mobile literacy program that provides one-on-one reading support and motivational incentives to kids. For every book they read, kids earn a book buck which can be redeemed for prizes.

There are currently six StoryTent’s throughout the county, in North Park, City Heights, Imperial Beach, El Cajon, La Mesa, and Vista. Moberly said for the last year, they’ve been working with San Diego Social Venture Partners to develop a StoryTent licensing model, their dream being to partner with a retail store like Target to offer StoryTents in the store every weekend.

“Imagine kids begging their parents to go to Target every weekend to go to a StoryTent, and then parents have an hour to get their shopping done without being rushed by their kids,” Moberly said.

Traveling Stories has its upcoming fourth annual fundraising gala, called Down The Rabbit Hole, on Saturday Sept. 21, at Lux Art Institute in Encinitas. Among the night’s honorees are 13-year-old Mohammed Almahdawe and Kris Moberly, Emily’s mom.

Mohammed said he came across a StoryTent on his way to a library to check out a Percy Jackson book. He started out as a reader but recently became a volunteer.

“Though I take my job seriously I still try to make the kids laugh, that’s the funnest part of being a volunteer,” Mohammed said. “It’s nice to see the kids improving from low preschool books to third-grade books. It’s exciting to be one of StoryTent’s members to help the community and support kids to improve their reading skills.”

To purchase tickets to the gala, go to: travelingstories.org/gala.

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