It’s probably fitting that Alexia Ayuk’s best friend gave her a book for her birthday, because three years ago, Ayuk and three of her classmates at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Olney, Maryland,  started a nonprofit organization called “A Book for My Birthday” that has provided 19,000 books to schools serving children in low-income communities, and to children in hospitals and in homeless shelters.

“We were all wanting to create a way we could help in the community,” she said of that effort that she began with fellow Good Counsel students Danny Cummins, Brent Smith and Caleigh O’Connor, which was sparked after they saw a documentary about the limited educational opportunities for children in a large inner-city school district, and because they became concerned about the illiteracy rate in the United States. “We thought donating books to people who don’t have access to them would be helpful,” Ayuk said.

That effort, she added, reignited her own love of reading that she had since she was a girl and visited her library every week.

“When I was younger, I was obsessed with reading – I loved to read,” Ayuk said. “When my mom sent me to my room, I was so happy, because I could go to my room and read in peace.”

Ayuk along with her three friends who co-founded the nonprofit with her graduated from Our Lady of Good Counsel last week as members of the school’s class of 2019. This fall, she will attend the University of Maryland, where she plans to major in accounting and minor in journalism.

As a child, her favorite books included the picture book, “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” and later the “Dear America” series where girls in a diary format describe noted times in the nation’s history, and “The Magic Treehouse” series where a brother and sister magically experience historic eras, and “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” author Jeff Kinney’s series on the misadventures of a middle school boy. Through middle and then high school, she liked autobiographies, like those written by neurosurgeon Ben Carson and former First Lady Michelle Obama. Currently she enjoys reading “The Mortal Instrument” fantasy series for young adults by Cassandra Clare, and one of the books on her bookstand now is the suspense thriller“Everything You Want Me to Be” by Mindy Mejia.

“I think reading is empowering,” she said. “It takes you away. That’s why I loved it so much. You’re immersed in other worlds and lives of people you never would have met or fathomed.”

In April during National Volunteer Month, Ayuk – who is 17 and lives in Gaithersburg – was named one of Maryland’s top two state honorees for 2019 in the Prudential Spirit of Community Awards, the nation’s largest youth volunteer awards program honoring students in grades 5-12 for outstanding volunteer service.

She credits the teamwork of all four Good Counsel graduates for the success of the “A Book for My Birthday” program.

“You have someone who empowers you to do it. We keep each other on our toes… We were able to divide the tasks and conquer,” she said.

Over the years, they held book drives, handed out fliers in local restaurants and libraries, collected donations, stored and sorted the books and delivered them to school libraries and media centers serving disadvantaged children. In the summers, they donated books to hospitals and shelters.

In a press release for the volunteer award, Ayuk described the impact that she hoped the books would have on the children receiving them. “By giving students a book, I can hopefully inspire them to remember that once they are handed that powerful tool, the possibilities are endless,” she said.

The website for “A Book for My Birthday” at www.abookformybirthday.com includes a link for donations. The homepage notes, “Learning to love reading can transform a life. Today, many disadvantaged students don’t or can’t read simply because they have no books. We want to change that. We believe a great education cannot proceed unless we learn to love to read; reading opens our minds to all of the possibilities of life. For children, learning to read can cultivate an inexhaustible appetite for knowledge, paving the way to a stable academic career and a world of opportunities. Readers are lifetime learners, lifetime explorers and forever adventurers in the world and beyond.”

Ayuk, who was born at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, is the daughter of Marie-Claire Abe and George Ayuk, immigrants from Cameroon in Africa, and she has an older sister Lucielle who just completed her freshman year at the University of Maryland. They are parishioners at St. John Neumann in Gaithersburg, where Alexia has been a youth group leader.

At Our Lady of Good Counsel, Ayuk was co-captain of the debate team and part of the Xaverian Brothers Sponsored School (XBSS) campus ministry team, helping to organize school Masses, retreats and service activities. She was also the news editor and special projects editor of the school’s online newspaper.

Her Catholic education, and her Catholic faith, have helped her find meaning in life and have “helped me find my calling and what I should be doing to help the world,” she said.

Posters in the library at Our Lady of Good Counsel reflects that educational journey and the outreach undertaken by Ayuk and her three classmates. One poster featured a quote by author Neil Gaiman: “A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.” Another poster read, “We lose ourselves in books, we find ourselves there, too.”