News & Stories

Global Reading Challenge brings a global perspective

Ruman, back row center, was one member of The Bookmasters, one of this year’s winning teams of the 2020 Global Reading Challenge.

In the past year, 11-year-old Ruman experienced the magic of reading about girls much like herself.

There’s Mia, the lead character of “Front Desk,” who helps her Chinese immigrant parents at the reception desk of the hotel they manage – much like Ruman, whose parents immigrated from East Africa and who sometimes helps her family’s South Seattle business.

There’s also Kiki of “Kiki and Jacques,” who wears a hijab like Ruman does, and comes from Somalia, like Ruman’s mom. It was the first time she saw a girl wearing a hijab on the cover of a book.

These books were selections from the 2019-20 Global Reading Challenge, an annual program for fourth- and fifth-graders that calls for teams of competitors to read 10 books and engage in a city wide trivia tournament. Ruman, a fifth-grader at Graham Hill Elementary, joined the contest with her team of seven called “The Bookmasters.”

JK Burwell, Ruman’s school librarian at Graham Hill, serves on the Library’s committee that selects the books each year. And that magic Ruman enjoyed is very much intentional, she says.

The selection of books each year is intended to represent a variety of reading levels, characters, and authors, in an effort to make them accessible to as many children as possible and expose them to an array of perspectives.

And then there’s the teambuilding involved as students work together to study the books and quiz each other on their content.

“It isn’t about strong reading,” Burwell says. “It’s how you work as a team, trusting your teammates, defending your answer.”

Donors supported the purchase of 8,000 Global Reading Challenge books distributed to every public elementary school in Seattle, which not only gives Challenge participants access to books, but builds the collections of school libraries, many of which have limited resources for new books.

The Bookmasters won both the Graham Hill contest and a city semifinal in the Global Reading Challenge’s 25th year. The COVID-19 pandemic put an early stop to the tournament, but The Bookmasters were crowned co-champions with seven other teams who advanced far into the contest.

And it’s turned a girl who didn’t much like reading into a bookworm who hopes to become a senator when she grows up.

“Reading is a part of life,” Ruman says. “You need to learn how to read to learn how to do important things in your life.”

This story appeared in our 2019 Report to Donors. Read the full report here, complete with stories of donor impact and financial information.

Far apart, close in heart with Read to Me

Seattle Public Library children’s librarians help King County jail inmates connect with their children while incarcerated by giving them the tools to video record themselves reading a book with a program called Read to Me.

The Seattle Public Library continues to expand the idea of what it means to be a patron.

With Read To Me, librarians brought another part of Seattle’s population into the fold – the inmates of the King County Correctional Facility, just blocks away from Central Library.

To many kids in the city, these inmates are Mom or Dad.

“We know the importance of that bond between parents and children,” says Deborah Sandler, a children’s librarian at Central Library and co-lead on the program.

With Read To Me, librarians connect parent and child by helping parents film themselves reading a children’s book of their choice and sending that video to their kids, along with a copy of the book to follow along.

Lauren Mayer, children’s librarian

It’s an effort to help strengthen the family bond and mitigate the trauma of the children missing a caregiver, librarians say.

This ongoing program began last year, after library staff heard feedback  about the need for services among inmates in a community listening group.

After jail staff help identify participants, parents engage in three sessions with children’s librarians, covering everything from book selection to practice reading aloud to filming.

Parents take the lead, often helping each other rehearse and even drawing pictures and notes in the books that will go to their kids.

Deborah Sandler, children’s librarian

“We really want to build it around their personal experience,” says Lauren Mayer, a children’s  librarian at Central and co-lead of the program.

The parents film one story for each child age 7 or younger. They also choose  a chapter book to send to their older kids. What results through the course of the process is a bonding experience among the inmates and a positive outlet for them to interact with their children.

One caregiver reported that two kids “loved watching mommy on the TV and asked to watch it over and over again.”

Mayer and Sandler say it’s critical to treat inmates as members of the community and include them in the Library’s efforts to extend equitable services to everyone in Seattle.

“They want to do what’s best for their kids despite all the barriers that they or their kids are facing right now,” Mayer says.

Read To Me is made possible by donors’ support for our Community Engagement programs.

This story appeared in our 2019 Report to Donors. Read the full report here, complete with stories of donor impact and financial information.

Summer of Learning launches with a new approach

In this season of social distancing, The Seattle Public Library’s Summer of Learning program underwent a radical shift in order to keep kids engaged this year.

Anecdotally, kids have struggled to remain engaged in remote schooling this spring because the curriculum did not evolve with the format of virtual learning and students were removed from the classroom and their peers – two things that really helped them focus, says Josie Watanabe, managing librarian for the Library’s Youth and Family Services.

The Library wants to continue its mission to combat summer learning loss – so they enacted a “complete shift” in delivering programs to Seattle’s kids, Watanabe added.

“We want to explore what active virtual learning looks like,” she says. “We didn’t want it to be the same virtual learning that kids do in school.”

The Summer of Learning – a century-old Seattle pastime supported by donors to the Foundation – is aimed at keeping kids learning in fun and interactive ways in an effort to prepare them for the next school year.

The Library retained the teaching artists it hired for Summer of Learning, but these artists retooled their lessons to become more engaging via video. A series of activities will be posted to the Library’s YouTube page for kids.

These will include lessons on how to perform magic tricks, demonstrations on dance moves, and a scientist explaining what happens when people wash their hands.

Some activities will also fit with this year’s theme, “Every Day is Earth Day,” celebrating the 50th anniversary of Earth Day.

They’ll teach families how to observe nature on their own with lessons on birdwatching with the local Audubon Society, and pointers on taking a family nature walk in one’s own neighborhood.

The High Point Branch in West Seattle has employed six paid teen interns to be trained on how to teach nature walks and the Library will offer science kits to families so they can study bugs, as an adaptation of last year’s Bug Safari program.

The idea is to invite kids to be active learners instead of just watch a lecture or entertaining video, Watanabe says.

But the Library also aims to reach kids regardless of their access to the internet. Staff are working with Seattle Public Schools to include printed reading logs and teen challenge cards at school meal distribution sites. They are also providing books through culturally responsive community agencies who are also providing meals.

Learn more about the programs and join in on the fun at

‘I want to help any way I can’: Stim Bullitt scholarship winner embarks on life of service

Success was not handed to 17-year-old Deborah Tesfay and her family.

After immigrating to the Seattle from Eritrea when she was 9 years old, Deborah stayed in a homeless shelter with her mother and two siblings, separated from her father because men weren’t allowed.

“We had to start from the bottom,” Deborah says. “Starting from the bottom was a very hard time for my family.”

But they persevered. They made a life for themselves in Seattle.

Inspired by a public figure who also overcame adversity to achieve success, Deborah won $5,000 scholarship from The Seattle Public Library Foundation’s Stim Bullitt Civic Courage essay contest with her essay on Washington’s Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib. Having graduated this month from Nathan Hale High School, she plans to attend the University of Washington in the fall.

The Stim Bullitt scholarship challenges local high school and college students to write about a Washington state resident who displayed courage and made a difference in fighting for issues they cared about. The Foundation splits $10,000 between a winning essayist and two runners-up.

Her winning subject, Habib, is a blind Iranian-American Ivy League alumnus who was a rising star on the state’s political stage, but announced this year that he plans to leave office at the end of his term to join the Society of Jesuits.

In her essay, Deborah focused not on his plans, but his lifelong history of tenaciously fighting for others.

“He really caught my eye because my passion is to help people – especially minorities in my community who need the support they need to succeed,” Deborah says. “He inspired me to push for that passion and keep striving to get to that place.”

As Deborah points out, Habib survived cancer three times – he lost his eyesight at age 8 due to cancer – and went to school at Columbia University, Oxford, and Yale University. As a state lawmaker and lieutenant governor, he advocated for public school funding, civil rights, and paid sick leave for workers.

“He never gave up and he kept on striving,” Deborah says.

Influenced by her own beginnings in America and the strength displayed by Habib, Deborah hopes to help youth in her community.

She plans to earn a degree in social work and explore that field for a few years before going to law school to become a juvenile attorney. She hopes to help reduce incarceration of Black teenagers.

“I want to help any way I can through my career,” she says.

Deborah’s neighborhood Seattle Public Library location is the Lake City Branch, where she grew close with Librarian Nancy Garrett and completed her homework after school.

“The Library was just like a home for me,” Deborah says. “I think it gave me a lot of opportunity.”

Congratulations, Deborah!

To learn more about Deborah and Cyrus Habib, read her winning essay here. Also check out the runner-up essays by Evelyn Chen and Della Floyd. Their essays will be catalogued in The Seattle Public Library’s Special Collections.

Learn more here about the Stim Bullitt Civic Courage Scholarship. The 2021 contest will open in January.

Past Stim Bullitt scholarship recipient now a Fulbright scholar, English teacher

Photo by Shadrak Musafiri

For the past seven years, the Stim Bullitt Civic Courage Scholarship has helped young Seattle-area students pay for college. Early winners of the scholarship are now graduating and entering the professional world, continuing their young lives of achievement.

The Seattle Public Library Foundation checked in with a 2015 scholarship recipient this month, Noah Foster-Koth. A graduate of Roosevelt High School, Noah earned runner-up recognition and tuition support for his essay on Nettie Asberry, who founded the first NAACP chapter west of the Rocky Mountains in 1913 in Tacoma.

Today, Noah is sheltering in place with his family in Seattle, his Fulbright Scholarship to study in Colombia delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic – “taking each day as it comes,” he says.

But he’s already embarked on a successful academic life, turning from student to teacher since graduating from Lewis and Clark College in 2019.

Noah graduated summa cum laude with honors, with degrees in English and Hispanic Studies and then moved to Ecuador. There, he taught English to high school students and adults, specializing in writing and essay composition for students seeking to study in the United States.

He also performed translation work for a wildlife refuge.

Taking inspiration in part from Nettie Asberry, Noah continues to look for ways to help others, with a particular interest in supporting immigrants arriving in the United States. The 2017 protests against immigrant detention in Sea-Tac prompted him to perform volunteer translation work for El Centro de la Raza’s legal clinic.

He’s also kept in touch with Tina Bullitt, Stim Bullitt’s widow who established the scholarship to honor her late husband’s memory.

“She’s very sweet and very complimentary of the things I’ve been up to,” Noah says.

They both share a passion for conservation and she’s even helped connect him to a screenwriter she knows to offer advice on Noah’s screenwriting passion.

“It’s always so nice when previous generations say, ‘We really believe in the future,’” he adds. “She’s providing a lot of support to me and other Bullitt (scholarship) recipients. She’s always expressed confidence in me and is always willing to hear what I’m up to.”

Noah won’t embark on his Fulbright studies until at least January. But when the time comes, he will teach English and work on a separate side project to be determined – perhaps teaching screenwriting, he says, but those plans have yet to emerge.

Meanwhile, he will start work next month as a COVID-19 contact tracer for King County.

He credits his 2015 scholarship in Stim Bullitt’s memory as foundational to his subsequent success in writing.

“Stim Bullitt was the first scholarship I ever won,” Noah says. “It certainly bolstered my self-confidence as a writer and contributed to having English as one of my majors.”

Read Noah’s essay here, now catalogued in The Seattle Public Library’s Special Collections.

Learn more about the Stim Bullitt Civic Courage Scholarship.

The Foundation congratulates the 2020 winners of the Stim Bullitt Civic Courage Scholarship

The Seattle Public Library Foundation is thrilled to announce the three winners of the 2020 Stim Bullitt Civic Courage Scholarship.

Deborah Tesfay, Evelyn Chen, and Della Floyd have each earned tuition support from this scholarship fund with their essays about local civic leaders.

Now supporting students for 7 years, the scholarship honors the legacy of the late Library supporter, community leader, and activist Stimson Bullitt, who believed that courageous civic leadership could transform lives for generations. The contest challenges local high school and college students to write an essay about an individual or group from Washington state who demonstrated civic courage on an important community issue at great personal, political, or professional risk.

Each year, $10,000 is divided among three outstanding students and their essays are permanently cataloged in The Seattle Public Library’s Seattle Room.

We extend special thanks to our local authors who judged the finalists: Kristen Millares Young, Jon Krakauer, and Jonathan Raban

This year’s three winning essays illustrated the accomplishments of Lt. Gov. Cyrus Habib, Duwamish Tribal Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, and Asian American advocate Phil Hayasaka.

Congratulations to our winners!

Deborah Tesfay
Nathan Hale High School
Entering University of Washington
$5,000 scholarship
“Cyrus Habib”





Evelyn Chen
Newport High School
Entering Harvard University
$2,500 scholarship
“Unity Transcends Barriers: Phil Hayasaka and the Unification of Asian Americans”





Della Floyd
Chief Sealth High School
Entering University of Washington
$2,500 scholarship
“Fighting for the Original Seattleites”

SPL named Library of the Year 2020

We are proud to announce that The Seattle Public Library (SPL) was named the Library Journal/Gale 2020 Library of the Year! This is the most prestigious award in the library industry and SPL competed with several excellent library systems across North American to earn this honor.

What pushed SPL to the forefront, according to Library Journal, is its commitment to equity and evolving with the community’s ever-changing needs.

“SPL has turned its attention outward, actively listening to community needs and transforming its work to make equity a top priority,” Library Journal says.

This work includes the Library’s internal team working to improve the Library’s inclusivity, its efforts to center the needs of local social justice groups in Library services, and its reforms to prioritize underserved communities in each of its programs, from the Bookmobile to Summer of Learning.

The Foundation has followed the Library’s lead in helping to create a more equitable community, emphasize racial and social justice in the programs we support. Together, we have worked to implement a cultural change in our institutions to better reflect our community and we proudly support SPL’s forward-thinking approach.

We owe gratitude to our donor family who has joined our effort to make The Seattle Public Library the best it can be for each of our neighbors. It is our collective values that have propelled the Library to become the world-class institution it is, providing information and opportunity to all who seek it. We take this recognition not as validation for a job well done, but as a push to keep improving.

Thank you to each of our supporters. You help make the Library a force for knowledge and empowerment, and for that we can all be proud.

Read the article

The Library Foundation commits $250,000 in urgent Library support

Recognizing the Library’s and the City of Seattle’s economic challenges that lie ahead, The Seattle Public Library Foundation has issued an additional $250,000 in unrestricted grant support to The Seattle Public Library.

The Foundation had pledged $4 million in grants to collections and programs at the beginning of the year as part of its annual support to the Library. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, the Foundation loosened restrictions on how that money is used so the Library can respond to areas of greatest need.

The additional $250,000 is intended to reinforce that support and allow the Library to adapt to ever-changing circumstances

“Like communities across the globe, we anticipate Seattle will be facing unheard-of challenges in the months ahead,” says Jonna Ward, CEO of the Foundation. “This is one step we can take to proactively support our Library and help them plan and prepare for the reality of the current situation.”

The new funding and existing grant commitments will shift into a response fund that will be supported by donors who are committed to helping the Library with private gifts above and beyond what public funding alone provides.

“The Foundation has always been a strong partner,” says Marcellus Turner, Chief Librarian and Executive Director of the Library. “We are fortunate to be part of a city where our people support the Library on many fronts, including private gifts to the Foundation. And knowing that our Foundation sees this time and opportunity as a space to again support the changing work of libraries means so much to the work we do and the people we serve.”

Finding comfort in eBooks, donor pays it forward

SPLF donor Lauren Ubaldo passes stay-at-home time with eBooks from The Seattle Public Library. (photo submitted by Lauren Ubaldo)

Like most of us these days, Lauren Ubaldo could use an escape.

The West Seattle resident is a house cleaner who owns a business with her husband, and work has dried up for now.

So she turns to The Seattle Public Library and its collection of eBooks and audiobooks, which makes being home all day a little less isolating.

“I have the high of going on a shopping spree, but it’s all free, which is really great,” she says.

It’s this outlet that compelled her to give to The Seattle Public Library Foundation for the first time, during April’s Library Giving Day campaign. She’s thankful to maintain easy access to digital materials while her neighborhood Library, the Southwest Branch, remains closed.

“It was just a little something I could do to help out the Library,” Lauren says. “I just was really appreciating that we still had access to books to read or listen to – 10 to 15 years ago, we wouldn’t have had that.”

Lauren grew up in a small town in Michigan, about four hours north of Detroit. She fondly recalls her mother taking her and her sister to the local library, where they would browse the stacks and sit to read. It always felt like a special day.

Now she can carry a semblance of that feeling when she peruses the titles on her e-reader.

“It’s a good way to keep your mind from reeling and taking your mind off things you can’t really do anything about,” Lauren says.

Lauren has been reading “If Beale Street Could Talk” by James Baldwin and murder mysteries by Anne Cleeves.

“Murder mysteries might not seem light,” she says, “but the way they’re written is a little lighter and it’s an escape.”

Welcome to the Foundation family, Lauren!

English conversation class presses on, virtually

Earlier this month, more than a dozen people representing seven countries gathered in a Zoom video meeting to discuss a universal passion: food.

They started off by introducing themselves and their favorite snacks: nuts, cheese, chocolate.

It was a continuation of a long-running program, but in a new way, uniting people online instead of at a Library branch. Since Libraries closed in the wake of COVID-19, English Circle (formerly known as Talk Time) has moved online.

And now much of the same community that met in person are going on Zoom, says Walter Mehring, program coordinator at Literacy Source.

“We were lucky enough to create this really cool community and it seems pointless not to keep in contact with those people,” he says.

English Circle is a joint effort between Literacy Source and The Seattle Public Library, with support from The Seattle Public Library Foundation. Participants during the years have been native speakers of more than 100 languages and come to English Circle to practice their conversational English.

After introductions, volunteers who moderate discussion and the participants looking to practice are broken up into smaller online groups for more intimate conversation about an assigned topic.

In one group, volunteer Carol Pucci continued the food conversation with Nino Antauri of Russia and Peri Aytaç of Turkey.

The women discussed more of their favorite foods. Nino, whose father is Georgian, said she loved khachapuri, a quintessential Georgian dish of bread stuffed with cheese. Peri mentioned experimenting with cooking different pasta dishes and exchanged ideas for quiche ingredients.

Peri has attended English Circle for nearly a year.

“My main goal is reaching advanced level in English and the related part of my goal with English Circle is to improve my speaking along with my accent,” she says. She also wants to improve her “listening by talking with native and non-native participants.”

Nino shares that goal and mentioned the sense of community that English Circle brings.

“All the people at English Circle (are) related by one purpose … to improve the English and maybe to find new friends at (a) new place,” she says. “And it is very good to realize that there are people who want to help you to adapt faster and with lots of fun. That is appreciated so much.”

Volunteers say they’ve witnessed tremendous progress among the participants. Volunteer Mark Taylor mentioned Roberta, a woman from Taiwan who attended what was then known as Talk Time.

People who knew her through the class watched as she blossomed and became fluent enough in English to curate and host a photography exhibit at Seattle Central College and gave a presentation in English to a class of students that stopped by.

She became a volunteer at the Nordic Museum, and once she got legal authorization to work, she got a job there, Mark says.

Volunteers and participants alike also say they enjoy learning about other cultures. They share what they learn at the end of each class.

As for food, people learned about how Colombian food is different from Mexican food, how American Thai food is made “too sweet,” and that rosemary is an easy-to-find shrub in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s a social event,” says volunteer Carol Pucci. She says English Circle is a low-pressure environment in which English language learners can practice without being put on the spot. “The whole idea is to have conversation.”

For a schedule and to register for Virtual English Circle, visit