New West Charter School students wrote a book to support literacy programs for homeless kids
By Bliss Bowen
“Poetry. Art. Charity. For children, by children.”
That short, sweet and to-the-point sales pitch banners the website for Verses for the Voiceless, a nonprofit organization founded by Storey Wertheimer, now a senior at New West Charter School in West L.A. While still in ninth grade, struck by the “amazing” writing and drawing talent of her classmates in a poetry unit, she asked if any would be interested in composing poems for a book. Their English teacher helped advertise the project to the student body, and
Wertheimer says they received 150 submissions.
In March, that book was finally published: “Animals Are Out of This World!” During its three-year journey from inspiration to publication, the poetry anthology, created by 16 students, became a vehicle for a meaningful cause: helping homeless children in the United States. Wertheimer says 100% of book sale proceeds go to Verses for the Voiceless to support literacy programs for those children.
A poised speaker, Wertheimer says an assignment to “write a persuasive speech about something” for her school’s speech and debate team prompted her to “tie the concept” of her peers’ talent with homelessness.
“I started researching random things, and found an article about how one in every 30 children experiences homelessness,” she recalls. “That was so shocking to me; one in 30 children is like one person in every one of my classes. That’s 2.5 million children in America. … I wrote my speech about helping homeless children and really developed a passion for it.”
After a few months of giving speeches at weekend tournaments, Wertheimer realized that spreading awareness was all well and good, but what she really wanted to do was “spark tangible change and help the people who need help the most.” Given how much she and her peers enjoy creative writing, books seemed “a good way to go because a lot of homeless children don’t have access to these literary resources.”
Divided into two parts — “Animals Galore!” and “Look Up!” — “Animals Are Out of This World!” engages the wonder and charming curiosity of small children with vivid illustrations and poems like “Puppies,” “A Bad Case of Shapeshifting,” “The Animal Olympics” and “The Sweet Sky.” Since March, Wertheimer says she and some of her cohorts have read to students at Westside schools such as Warner Avenue Elementary and Brockton Avenue Elementary, and have expanded to the San Gabriel Valley. She has discussed their mission at a few large assemblies, and they sold the book at a scholastic book fair in the spring. Moving forward, they plan to attend more such fairs, continue reading to homeless and elementary school children, and launch literacy programs.
“I visited the Good Shepherd Center and read to all the children there, and donated copies to each one,” she says of the Downtown L.A. shelter for homeless women and children. “We also received funding from an organization called the Century Housing Corporation, an affordable housing village in Los Angeles; they were able to fund 500 of our books to donate to all of the children living [there].
“We definitely want to get these literacy programs off the ground … Once programs in L.A. are up and running, we’re going to start them in San Francisco as well — another city with a massive homeless youth population that often
“We were really excited to create this partnership,” says Karla Torres, the family services program manager for Good Shepherd. Torres says she and Wertheimer have been “brainstorming a lot” about a workshop they hope to get up and running soon.
“Some of the ideas are for us to focus on children’s social and emotional wellbeing,” she says. “Another workshop that Storey thought of is to hire tutors for a couple hours and basically have the kids focus on their academic and creative writing skills. Then we’re planning a storytime workshop, where they’re going to allocate some [Verses for the Voiceless] funds to purchase each kid a book of their choice, and expand the Good Shepherd’s library.”
There’s hope in all this disciplined creativity and ambitious planning. Wertheimer and a friend have composed another children’s book and launched a second organization, Food for Thought, aimed at reducing food waste. She doesn’t yet know where she’ll start college next year, but she knows what she wants to do.
“I’m probably going to major in political science or public policy, because I really like speaking about things I care about while also trying to incite change. Public policy is a really good way to do that. And it’s also very humanities based, which is what I love.”
Order copes of “Animals Are Out of This World!” at versesforthevoiceless.com. Call (213) 235-1460 or visit gschomeless.org to donate books to the Good Shepherd Center.