Kay Lauren Miller, a Georgetown University freshman and Vienna native, organized her first book drive in the eighth grade. She wanted to do something special for a civics class assignment and, with her parents' help, she went searching for those with spare books and those with not enough.
She persuaded students at an elementary school to donate children's books they had outgrown and then got the principal at her former preschool to contribute a batch of book-sale leftovers. She donated the children's books -- 400 total, plus a set of encyclopedias and a bookcase -- to a shelter for the homeless.
It was just the beginning. Miller's simple idea -- making sure needy children had plenty of reading material -- has grown into a full-fledged organization. Since its founding in 1997 by the determined 14-year-old, Reading Offers Amazing Rewards Inc. (ROAR) has distributed more than 65,000 books throughout the United States and the world.
Miller, now 18, has helped collect new and used children's books to start libraries in homeless shelters and day care centers throughout the Washington area and beyond, from Armenia to Ethiopia to Honduras.
"I never would have thought in eighth grade the project would have grown into something like this," Miller said. "I'm still amazed by it. It keeps on growing all the time."
Last month, Miller was honored by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), receiving its first Bureau Citation. The award, which recognizes volunteerism in international development, was given to Miller for her work in promoting reading in the developing world.
Kent R. Hill, USAID assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia, presented the award to Miller at an Oct. 7 ceremony in Washington.
"Kay's remarkable accomplishments truly reflect the generosity of the American public and their commitment to improving the world in which we live," Hill said during the ceremony. USAID is an independent federal agency that provides economic and humanitarian assistance worldwide.
It was not Miller's first official accolade. Last May, she received a national Prudential Spirit of Community award after winning the award at the state level. Miller received $5,000, and her group was awarded $25,000 in children's books.
In many ways, Miller is a typical teenager, joining the cheerleading squad and lacrosse team in high school. But in another sense, she is not so typical, writing speeches and delivering them before women's clubs and youth groups and impressing officials at USAID and homeless shelters with a grown-up attitude.
Her persistence in keeping the organization running while others her age pursued more leisurely activities came from interacting with those she wanted to help the most -- young residents of Washington area shelters. She would watch their faces light up with each box of books and couldn't imagine quitting.
"Some of the shelters didn't even have any books," she said. "I didn't want to stop because I knew how important it was."
Books had been important to Miller as a child but also a challenge. Miller was diagnosed with dyslexia at 8, and reading was a struggle until she overcame the learning disability with the help of tutors and her mother.
The group Miller founded has come a long way since eighth-grade civics class. Her parents -- her mother, Joyce Hair, is a gynecologist and her stepfather, Ronald McCormack, is a lawyer -- helped her set up the nonprofit. They remain her primary helpers, and the garage at the family's home in Vienna remains the group's central storage space. When Miller worked with USAID to distribute 1,500 books to Armenia recently, the garage housed the shipment.
"We always joke about how they're never able to get a car in there," Miller said.
Her mother doesn't mind. "I'm just amazed that a small idea has just taken off, but yet it doesn't surprise me," Hair said. "I truly believe . . . that reading is the basis of knowledge, and it just opens doors for everything."
In the beginning, Hair recalled, the greatest difficulty they faced came not from finding places in need of books but from finding places that took a 14-year-old seriously.
"The hardest part was getting people to believe her," Hair said. "They didn't think she was legitimate."
But she kept at it, with her parents' help. Throughout high school, Miller helped establish children's libraries at homeless shelters and day care centers with the aid of her classmates at James Madison High School. She and a core group of seven student volunteers promoted book drives, collected and sorted donated books and made sure they got into the hands of kids in Washington, Maryland and Virginia.
Last summer, ROAR went international, providing 2,000 books to children in the Bahamas. Miller and seven other volunteers traveled there on a two-week tutoring trip, helping 50 children improve their reading skills. The group has also shipped books to Honduras, India and Ethiopia, and Miller has lately been working on a shipment to children in Uzbekistan.
Much of her work is accomplished by word of mouth and the kindness of strangers and neighbors. Shelters in need contact her directly, as do neighbors looking to put their kids' old books to good use.
Most of Miller's books have come from book drives at schools, Girl Scout troops, businesses and women's clubs in Fairfax County and across the region. She also keeps an eye out for yard sales.
"I'll be going out somewhere, and I see they're selling used books for a dollar, and I'll buy five or so," she said.
Miller wants to make ROAR active at Georgetown and hopes to one day have chapters across the country.