Community Focus: Emily Moberly and Traveling Stories
This month, in anticipation for the soon to be released Art Is Being podcast, I have reached out to a few of the first guests to provide some context to showcase what to expect for Season 1, which premieres later this month.
Reaching out to friends, colleagues, and businesses across the globe, the Art Is Being podcast will provide the listener access to creatives in the industry and provide insight and inspiration for artists and entrepreneurs alike on topics affecting the creative community and how real people and leaders changing the game.
This month's guest features Emily Moberly, the founder and Executive Director of Traveling Stories, a San Diego non profit with a mission to create engaging social reading experiences that helps kids fall in love with reading by the fourth grade! Emily and her team are outsmarting poverty one book at a time through the innovative program, transforming reluctant readers into confident ones. Beginning with a single tent at a local San Diego farmers market, Emily's "Story Tents" can now be found across the globe, providing children around the world the opportunity to improve their literacy skills, build a life long love for reading, and have fun in the process!
Check out my exclusive interview with Emily below and stay tuned this month for the new Art Is Being podcast with Emily and Traveling Stories.
How did the idea for Traveling Stories first come about?
I’ve always been an avid reader! I was blessed to grow up surrounded by books. Bedtime wasn’t complete without a story! It wasn’t until I moved to Honduras the fall after I graduated from college that I discovered that lots of children don’t have the same access to books that I took for granted. I was in Honduras teaching English to high school students. Although they were teenagers, they had never fallen in love with reading. They didn’t visit bookstores or libraries. They had only read text books. I filled one of my suitcases with books and made my students read every day. Slowly but surely almost all 87 of them found a book they connected with. I got to watch my students fall in love with reading for the first time. Seeing how it changed many of their lives had a big impact on me. My students inspired me to start Traveling Stories. In 2010 Traveling Stories became an official nonprofit. That first year we opened our first library in South Sudan. I started with an international focus, but soon became aware of literacy needs in our own backyard. In 2011 we created the StoryTent program to provide free reading support to disadvantaged kids in San Diego. Today we’re serving over 5,000 kids worldwide every year!
To create something like Traveling Stories certainly takes passion! Why do you feel called to help the communities you have chosen?
I feel called to make the world a better place. It wasn’t until I taught in Honduras and helped my students fall in love with reading for the first time that I saw a way for me to make the world better by sharing my life-long love for reading!
In terms of the communities I work with – I’ve always been drawn to people who go unnoticed. In college I studied journalism. I wanted to tell stories that weren’t being told. I wanted to give people a voice who didn’t have one.
Through Traveling Stories I work with families in low-income neighborhoods and communities in developing countries that have never had access to books. I seek communities that have low literacy rates and limited access to books. 82% of low-income kids in America can’t read at grade level by the 4th grade, which leaves them 15x more likely to drop out of school. That’s ridiculous and embarrassing for our country. I can make a difference. I can be part of fixing that problem. I would rather work with kids who’ve never had the chance to fall in love with reading. It’s more exciting for me to provide reading support in communities that have low literacy levels than in communities that have high reading levels, strong literacy habits at home, and plenty of books.
What role does art and photography have when coupled with words? How do pictures help a young reader?
Pictures are just as powerful as the words. Pictures often are what grabs a child’s attention in the first place. A kid doesn’t stare at a page of words and think, “I can’t wait to read that!” Kids see a dinosaur, a little girl who looks like them, a scary dragon, etc … and it makes them want to turn the page and see more.
Pictures play an important role in our StoryTent program, as well because among the families we work with there are dozens of different languages and cultures. Sometimes words honestly just aren’t enough. We can use pictures to communicate when words aren’t enough.
Sometimes we even forget all about the words in a book and encourage kids to look at the pictures and make up the story. Art becomes a tool we can use to exercise our imaginations. It also becomes a tool for getting to know a reader better. Their interpretation of a picture can reveal a lot about their personality and life-experiences.
What makes you passionate about reading?
Reading changed my life and continues to change it. Reading equips me to do anything I can imagine. Even starting this nonprofit – it wouldn’t have been possible if I couldn’t read. I don’t’ have formal training, but having the ability to read allowed me to learn what I needed to start the nonprofit without any lawyers, etc.
Reading has also been a source of companionship and comfort. Growing up I was homeschool and didn’t get to interact with a ton of kids my age. Books became my friends. The characters I got to know – like Nancy Drew, Clara Barton, Joan of Arc – they inspired me and made me want to have an epic story of my own. Through books I traveled to far off lands (both real and fictional) – it made me want adventures of my own.
Books gave me a rich life even though I didn’t have a lot of money growing up. Books didn’t care about that.
Reading also helps make people more empathetic. As I get older, I notice that more and more. It makes me even more passionate about encouraging others to read more. We need people who can put themselves in other peoples’ shoes and empathize with them.
What are your tops reads this year?
“An Ember in the Ashes” and its sequel “A Torch Against the Night”
“In the Shadow of the Banyan”
“As I Darken”
“The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results”
“Invisible Selling Machine”
What is your favorite book of all time?
To Kill a Mockingbird
What’s the number one piece of advice you’ve received that continuously makes an impact on how you face each day?
"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
What is your favorite experience thus far in your journey with Traveling Stories?
Ah! That’s too hard to answer!
In March I got to travel to Cambodia for the grand opening of our newest World Library. We had a special party and our partners had fashioned a home-made red ribbon out of paper and had brought special scissors, which they let me use to cut the ribbon!! I felt so honored. It was such a special day in this community – the day they got their first library!!
But my other favorite experiences happen every week at the StoryTent when parents come up to me and give me hugs and thank me for helping their child learn how to read! The love and appreciation I feel when I’m at the StoryTent is amazing. It’s way more rewarding than any paycheck.
What are your hopes for Traveling Stories in the next five years. 10 years?
I hope that Traveling Stories will be so effective in helping kids fall in love with reading that one day we wont be needed. Currently 82% of low-income children can’t read at grade level by the 4th grade. My dream is for Traveling Stories to play a major role is changing that. But we probably won’t outsmart poverty overnight! I have a plan to grow Traveling Stories as quickly as possible without stretching ourselves too thin or compromising the quality of our programs. By 2020 I see Traveling Stories having 10 StoryTents a week in San Diego and helping at least 5,000 kids a year fall in love with reading.
Once our 10-program model is running smoothly, I’d like to copy that model in communities nationwide with funding from foundations and corporations who want to play an integral role in improving literacy levels in their communities.
What have you learned as a leader and team builder?
It goes back to that piece of advice… "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." I’m going to be honest – one reason that advice is so important to me is because it’s so hard for me to follow. My natural tendency is to work alone. It doesn’t help that most of the team projects I had to do in school didn’t go well – I ended up doing most of the work anyway while the team members who did nothing still got the credit and good grade! However, as I’ve gotten older and as my goals have gotten bigger I’ve learned that with the right team, you truly can accomplish more than you could by yourself. I’ve learned that being a great leader isn’t just about getting results, but it’s also about the team you build around you. The team I build is one of the ways I measure my success. As Traveling Stories grows my focus has had to shift. Instead of simply focusing on getting kids excited about reading I’ve begun to focus on collecting the right team, making sure they’re inspired, making sure they feel heard, and equipping them to get kids excited about reading.
What’s the biggest “aha” moment you’ve had in the past six months?
A few months ago my team and I had scheduled a field trip for the kids at the StoryTent. Tori, our StoryTent Captain, and I were to take 10 kids to see the movie “The BFG.” We planned to pick up kids from Imperial Beach, then from City Heights and then from El Cajon before watching the movie at Parkway Plaza. Then we’d drive them back to their respective cities.
Stupidly I scheduled oral surgery to remove my 4 wisdom teeth just 2 days before the field trip. Optimistically I thought I’d need just one day to recover and would be fine to do the field trip.
As you can probably guess, I was not fine and I needed much more than 1 day to recover. My mom, a long-time Traveling Stories volunteer, offered to fill in for me. The original plan to pick up from Imperial Beach, City Heights and El Cajon was too much. We had to call the kids in Imperial Beach the day-of and reschedule.
I learned that day that I tend to make unrealistic plans that are difficult for me to accomplish, and nearly impossible for others to accomplish. It’s great to dream big and push your limits, but I learned it’s also important to be more realistic about logistics and to put plans in place that your team feels prepared to complete.
What is the biggest triumph you have had thus far in your entrepreneurial pursuits? What have been your toughest moments? How do you get through them? What did you learn from the experience and grow from it?
A personal triumph was getting hired by Traveling Stories and making it my full time job. It took 5 years to get to that place. It was exhausting working full time and then running Traveling Stories at night and on weekends. I was beat down and didn’t know how long I could continue that pace.
I saw my friends making more and more money. They were getting raises and becoming bosses at their jobs. I wondered if I had made the right decision. Would I one day have to move back in with my parents and admit failure? At the end of the day I knew I was doing what I needed to. I was pursuing a dream and a purpose. There were times I wanted to give up, but my faith gave me the strength I needed to keep going. God kept showing me how much he loved me and how he wanted to be my provider. The doubts I faced, the exhaustion, the lack of money – they all made me have to rely on God more. In those difficulties he showed me that my worth doesn’t come from my possessions, a posh apartment, a big salary, an important title, or well-connected friends. Nothing I could do could make me any more or any less valuable to God. That was huge to me. It gave me a sense of freedom and fearlessness that I needed to continue pursuing my dream with Traveling Stories.
What upcoming project are you most excited for?
I can’t wait to launch a new StoryTent! We just had our first gala on September 17th and raised enough money to sustain a new StoryTent for an entire year. Now we’re meeting with different program sites and farmers markets to determine the best fit for our next StoryTent location! I can’t wait to see a new community begin falling in love with reading!!!
I want to personally thank Emily for her time, efforts, and sharing her story on the blog and podcast.
To contribute to Traveling Stories head on over to http://travelingstories.org to learn more and find out how you can donate or volunteer to help in their mission of fighting illiteracy across the globe. 100% of your donation goes directly to helping kids become strong readers!
Leave a comment below if you are inspired by Emily's story! And stay tuned this month for the first official episode of the Art Is Being podcast!
How has reading transformed your creative process? And what are your favorite reads?
Photography provided by Traveling Stories
Traveling Stories has been featured in
Jenna Marbles YouTube
10News San Diego
NBC7 San Diego
cW6 San Diego
San Diego Family Magazine
San Diego Reader
San Diego Union Tribune
Awards Traveling Stories has been nominated or finalist for include:
National Book Foundation's Innovations in Reading Prize 2016
SD Business Journal's Women Who Mean Business finalist (2012, 2015)
San Diego Magazine's Woman of the Year finalist (2015)
eWomen Network National Emerging Leader Finalist (2015)