In a school year filled with endless demands and constant change, first-grade teacher Nisha Phillip Malahoo has risen to the challenge in more ways than one. Not only has she kept things running smoothly in her own classroom, but she’s also moved beyond her virtual walls to make a real difference in the lives of her students and families. And it all started with a little free library.

Kids deserve to have books.

Nisha lives in the same neighborhood as many of the students at her school, and when she’d see them out playing, she’d ask if they read that day. “No, we didn’t read,” they would reply. Most kids didn’t have a lot of books at their homes, and this was early in the pandemic. You couldn’t just easily walk to the library or pick some up from school.

“I said OK, we gotta fix this,” Nisha said. “I’m an avid reader, so I started to just give them books.”

The kids loved it and came to her frequently to trade in for more books, but if she wasn’t home, they’d just leave them on her doorstep. This didn’t always bode well for the books, considering Florida’s heat and frequent torrential downpours, so Nisha set out to find a better way. This was when she learned about little free libraries, and she knew she had to have one.

By writing grants and soliciting volunteers, Nisha received enough support to put a little free library in the front of her home. Now it didn’t matter whether she was home or not—kids could come and go as they please to trade in books and get a new one. While the little free library was a great way for Nisha to connect with her students outside of the classroom, it opened up her eyes to a much bigger challenge.

When kids are going hungry, you have to do something.

Nisha first noticed a hunger concern in her community in her own classroom. Her young first graders, who she calls truth-tellers, would just tell her they didn’t have lunch because their mom didn’t have the money for it.

“When you’re teaching and talking to someone who is hungry, that’s rough,” Nisha said. “I would feel so guilty eating my lunch because I knew that five houses up, I might have a student going hungry.”

She knew how deep the needs were, not just in her own classroom but across the school. Plus, Thanksgiving was coming up, so she went to work again to write letters and look for support from her local community.

“I dropped off letters at the grocery store and the police station,” Nisha said. “I knew everyone was going through a pandemic and struggling, but some of us weren’t feeling it as much as others. Thankfully, we got enough money to be able to buy 45 Thanksgiving dinners for families in our school. It was amazing.”

The community keeps on giving.

Now Nisha had a system and a network to make a real difference in her own school and community, so she kept going. She ran a coat drive during December, collecting enough coats and clothes to give 70 gift bags to local families. For Valentine’s Day, she pulled together snack bags for kids. Then over spring break, for one of her biggest efforts ever, she put together food boxes for 100 families.

“When you’re off on spring break, you could be missing three meals,” Nisha said. “So we worked with a local food pantry to get fresh boxes of food. It was the coolest event. The cops even came out and brought their horses and dogs. They played basketball with the kids, and they got to pet the animals. It was so good to build up that relationship between the kids and the police officers.”

The last big thing Nisha is working on to end this school year is a bike drive. She’s been collecting donations and gently used bikes for several weeks now. They took applications of kids who needed a bike—there were 104 applicants total—so they’re hoping to be able to get something to each person who applied.

Anyone can make a difference.

While Nisha is proud of all they’ve done for the kids this year, she said she hopes they pick up a much bigger lesson outside of donated books, food, and bikes.

“I want to teach kids that you’re not too small and you’re not insignificant,” Nisha said. “I’m just a first-grade teacher teaching at a Title 1 school, but I wanted to show them that one person can make a difference and impact others’ lives.”

This school year, Nisha set out to lead by example, and she hopes her students will see that and do the same one day.

“These kids are minority kids, but they should not be underrepresented. They need to know they are important,” Nisha said. “You just gotta think it, and then you can do it.”

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