Traveling Stories: Interview with Educator and Entrepreneur Emily Moberly

Traveling Stories is a nonprofit organization that helps children learn to love reading and subsequently develop reading proficiency. Moreover, mentorship and money management skills are part of the program aimed at disadvantaged children. Typically, participating children would visit a Story Tent, pick out books, and then read with a volunteer, but now the organization has just launched a Virtual Story Tent to keep the initiative going despite the pandemic.

Traveling Stories was started by English teacher Emily Moberly who was inspired to start the initiative after teaching in Honduras and realizing that her students did not have adequate exposure to storybooks. To remedy this situation, Emily returned to have native California, filled a suitcase with books, and returned to Honduras. Engaging with these books enabled Emily’s students to fall in love with reading.

Emily took this experience as this catalyst for launching Traveling Stories both nationally and internationally. She recently discussed her experiences at the helm of this organization via an exclusive interview.

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for teaching and why did you decide to focus on English in particular?

Emily Moberly (EM): Truthfully, I don’t really identify as a teacher. In college, I studied journalism and business and my goal was to be a foreign correspondent, but after graduation, I took a job as a teacher in Honduras. It was my first and last teaching experience, but it had a tremendous impact. I miss my students and teaching — it was an incredible experience. I didn’t find out I’d be teaching English until the first day of school, but I was pleased! English has always been a favorite subject of mine because it involves storytelling and so much reading! However, ironically, the lowest grade I ever got in high school was in my sophomore English class.

MM: How did you get into teaching in Honduras?

EM: I was a senior in college and I was looking for ways to have an adventure around the world after graduation with little to no money. A friend of mine grew up in Honduras and recommended I apply to be a teacher at one of the bilingual schools in his city. With his help, I was offered the job and boarded a plane a few months later. It wasn’t until I arrived in Honduras that I found out what grades or subjects I’d be teaching. I was so excited about the new experience, but I remember getting on the plane and feeling nervous that I had made a mistake. It all worked out. Honduras continues to be one of my favorite places in the whole world.

MM: What stories did you originally bring back for your students?

EM: I looked for books that my students would enjoy. They were learning English as a second language, so I also tried to be mindful of their reading levels. I looked for books that they could read, but that also might challenge them a bit. I brought everything from “I Know What You Did Last Summer” to “Red Badge of Courage” to “The Kite Runner.” In all, I brought at least 75 books back to my students. Eventually, word spread and other teachers began to borrow “Miss Moberly’s Library” for their classes, too. By the end of the year, every student in our school from 8th grade to 12th grade had seen the books cycle through their class.

MM: In your experience, what kinds of stories do students enjoy most and are any titles especially popular?

EM: It’s hard for me to say because every person is so different and sometimes what we enjoy reading depends on what mood we’re in. In general, I notice that people tend to gravitate toward books with characters that they can relate to. My students in Honduras also seemed to prefer books about characters who overcame hardships. The fact that there is so much variety within stories is one reason I love my work with Traveling Stories. Talking to someone about the books they enjoy provides such a beautiful, intimate glimpse into who they are. It really helps you get to know a person. At the StoryTent programs, the children’s preferences are all over the place from kittens and princesses to comics and historical fiction. Every child is different and I love that! It’s like getting to know their story as you help them fall in love with new stories.

MM: What made you decide to start Traveling Stories and how long did it take to establish as a nonprofit?

EM: After teaching in Honduras for one year, I returned to San Diego. I was bored at my job and getting messages often from my former students about the impact I had made on their life by introducing them to reading for fun. Their feedback made me realize that I could make an impact in the world — something that really mattered to me- by simply sharing my love of reading. I had a lot of ideas on what that would look like and those ideas got shaped by conversations with close friends and family. Finally, with their encouragement, I filed the paperwork to become a 501c3 charity. I told those friends and family that I would invest the time if they would invest the money needed to pay the filing fees. Within a week we had all the funds raised! Then it was time for me to get to work! That was around December 2009. In May 2010 we received our federal nonprofit status. We’ve been trudging along ever since.

MM: What made you decide on the tent aspect?

EM: Traveling Stories started with an international focus, but pretty quickly we became aware of the need for literacy support locally. There were already organizations doing great work in schools, so we wanted to find a new way to connect with children outside of school — especially in vulnerable communities. One weekend, I found myself at a farmer’s market in an up-and-coming neighborhood — the first market to accept food stamps in San Diego! I noticed dozens of children running around wildly while their parents shopped for groceries. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to be one of the farmer market tents and offer a space for children to read while their parent’s shop? Luckily, the farmers market manager believed in the idea and gave us a vendor spot for free. The program grew in popularity and soon we had other markets asking us to set up a StoryTent at their location. What I like about our partnership with farmers’ markets is that it allows us to be in the community and to be part of families’ weekly routine. Most of the children who read with us at in-person StoryTents come back week after week. Also, by being at a farmer’s market — a venue not traditionally associated with education — children have an easier time associating reading with fun, rather than obligation. Reading at the StoryTent quickly becomes an activity that children look forward to!

MM: Where did you launch your first initiative and how many countries have you gone on to work with?

EM: Our first World Library was founded in Nimule, South Sudan. That was a really challenging project because of the political climate at the time in Sudan. We could not ship books directly to South Sudan, so I connected with some of my contacts from Uganda Christian University, where I studied abroad during college, and they helped us ship the books to Uganda and then hire a driver with an armed guard to transport them to the orphanage in Nimule. The armed guard was necessary, they said, to prevent theft of the books. After South Sudan, we were invited to partner with organizations and schools in El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Cambodia.

MM: How do you get nations interested in participating and how do you select your books?

EM: For each World Library project, there was a person at the organization or school in the other country that reached out to us. Many times, they heard about Traveling Stories through a friend or donor. It’s amazing how small the world can be with technology. Every new World Library project started with a needs assessment survey that was filled out by a decision maker at the partner site. One of the sections of the needs-assessment survey asked about the types of books the community wanted in their library. This included language, level, category, etc. We used that information to source the requested books the best we could. Often, we would source books in local languages through printers and publishers in the partner country. For the local StoryTent programs, our age range is much smaller: 2 to 12 years old. We source book donations of children’s books fit for this age range. Our priority is to stock every StoryTent with as many stories as possible that feature diverse characters to mirror the children who attend the programs. More than 80% of children who attend our San Diego StoryTents identify as a student of color, a refugee, or an immigrant.

MM: What has it been like to move this initiative entirely online?

EM: It has been exciting, but also sobering! COVID-19 has made it so that children who were already falling behind are now even more vulnerable. Research suggests that currently, only 60% of students in low-income communities are regularly logging into online instruction. The learning loss due to Covid-19 for these students is estimated to be at least 12 months. I’m relieved that the pivot to virtual allows us to continue serving families during a time of great need. I’m also excited about going online because it allows us to provide an even more valuable program to families. We now get to pair mentorship with our literacy support. Children get one-on-one, undivided attention from a volunteer every week. We’ve completed two pilot programs already and parents have been very vocal about the power of the individualized approach. On a personal level, I’ve gotten to see how the program impacts a child first-hand. I became a foster parent to two little girls earlier this year. One is in first grade and really struggles with reading. The Virtual StoryTent has made her like reading a lot more and the one-on-one support she gets every week has made a measurable difference in her reading skills. I’m optimistic that moving online will allow us to reach more children than the in-person model ever could.

MM: Might you consider keeping an online component even after Covid?

EM: Yes, absolutely! While we hope to re-open at least one in-person StoryTent once it’s safe, our plan for future impact is focused on growing the virtual StoryTent! It’s so much more scalable and individualized. For example, with our in-person programs, it took us 10 years to reach almost 10,000 children. With the Virtual StoryTent model, we believe that within a few years we’ll be serving tens of thousands of children every year! We’re finding that the virtual model is also more attractive to volunteers and some donors, which makes the program more sustainable long-term.

MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to mention?

EM: Our biggest project is the Virtual StoryTent. The next program starts in February and we’re hoping to enroll as many children entering kindergarten through second grade as possible. We need help getting the word out about the program to parents, schools, and youth organizations.

We believe the program has the capacity to serve tens of thousands of children every year — we just need help getting the word out to children and potential volunteers! For children who may be too old for the Virtual StoryTent, we also have the Reading Raffle App. Children can submit written or illustrated book reviews through the app for chances to win a weekly prize giveaway. Children who win, select the prize they want, and Traveling Stories ships it out to them. The app can be downloaded for free on Google Play or the App Store.

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