Beatriz De Oliveira is on a mission to change the world through reading. No, seriously. The 16-year-old Jewish teen from Campinas, Brazil — who now lives in San Diego, California with her family – is focused on giving children the tools they need to succeed. Namely: books.
Beatriz, who goes by Bea, started Books for a Change, which collects and donates books to daycares all over the world. She is one of 15 teens to receive a Diller Teen Tikkun Olam Award, given to Jewish teens who are tikkun olam leaders.
“To me, tikkun olam is truly all-encompassing,” Bea explained to me over e-mail. “From the smallest acts of kindness to the grandest gestures, it is working to improve the world in any way possible. No matter who you are, there are thousands of ways that you can work to make change and improve the world every single day.”
I had the chance to chat with Bea about Books for a Change, her dream goals, and, of course, her favorite book.
Can you talk about why you decided to start Books for a Change?
Five years ago was the first time that I stepped foot in a Brazilian daycare, or creche, in my hometown of Campinas, Brazil. I went there to donate some toys for the children. As I entered, I had a sudden realization. In a building filled with children whose minds were developing, they had no books. Subsidized by the Brazilian government, most daycares are given the bare minimum: some food, some supplies, and enough funding to furnish the building and pay for some activities. These public daycares tend to children from favela areas, which are poor communities filled with thousands of half-constructed homes, drug activity, and violence.
I left the daycare in utter shock. How could I sit in my safe home in San Diego, reading and enjoying life, while these children lacked the basic fundamentals of education? I couldn’t. When I looked to assist in an organization specializing in increasing literacy in countries such as Brazil and found none, I knew that I would have to take charge. My goal is to have a positive impact on the world, as well as to help as many people as I can. And from that, I created Books for a Change.
What has the reaction been like in Campinas and elsewhere?
The reaction has been incredible. Every time Books for a Change donates a mini library to a creche, the volunteers always report how grateful the creche teachers are. And it’s not just the teachers, but the children as well. There is no reaction like that of children receiving a shelf full of new books. When the shelf is placed on the floor, the children rush, eager to look and flip through the new books even if they don’t know how to read. Both the communities and the students are significantly impacted, and we’ve had emotional and amazing reactions to the work Books for a Change has done.
What is your dream goal for Books for a Change?
My dream goal for Books for a Change is to begin expanding into more countries. Regardless of where you are from, books play an integral part in any child’s education. I hope to work and provide access to books to thousands of children across the world.
What has been the biggest challenge? How have you dealt with it?
It was difficult to gain momentum as a 14-year-old attempting to start an organization. When describing my project to others, the validity was often questioned, and many people were wary of placing their money in the hands of a teenager. To succeed I had to persevere to obtain credibility and forge connections. I have created a wonderful network of volunteers and students that help with the project every day, and through our efforts, Books for a Change has become the organization it is today.
What does it mean to you to be a young Brazilian Jewish person?
Being Jewish will always be a significant part of my identity, as well as that of my family. In Brazil, there are very few of us, with the vast majority being there as a result of the Holocaust. For this reason, the Brazilian Jews have fostered an extremely tight-knit community. We are proud to be Jewish and grateful for the incredible community we are a part of. We are taught to help as many as we can and these values of giving were instilled in my mother at a young age, who has, in turn, instilled them in me. Every day, each member of my family tries to do a mitzvah and spread goodness in the world. Books for a Change is a result of this goodness, and my attempt to spread education and opportunity to those who may never have it. For this reason, my project will always have its roots in my Jewish identity.
What was your favorite book growing up?
My favorite book growing up was The Great Gatsby. I read it for the first time when I was in fifth grade, and then again in 8th and 11th grade. Every time I read the book, the meaning behind the story changed to reflect the period of life I was in. I love how it morphs with age. There will always be something new to discover when reading The Great Gatsby.
Header image design by Grace Yagel; photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images. All other images courtesy Bea De Oliveira.
The Diller Tikkun Olam Awards recognize 15 Jewish teens each year for their extraordinary community service work. Tikkun Olam, which means repairing the world, is exactly what these teens are doing – showing incredible innovation, creativity, and leadership in their communities and around the world. Alma is proud to partner with the Diller Foundation to share their amazing stories.