“You are going to miss this.” I can’t tell you how many well-intended relatives said…
Blumenstein siblings bring books alive for kids with learning disabilities
While other kids are out playing, Alana Blumenstein, 17, and her brothers Jacob, 15, and Reuben, 11, have been hard at work. They’re pouring their time into a project they believe in — KidsRead2Kids.com, a website that gives kids a chance to hear classic books read online by their peers.
Visitors find out about the website by word of mouth and, upon visiting, can pick from a selection of books read on video by Alana and a team of other student volunteers, most of whom attend the kids’ school, Detroit Country Day.
Whether it’s a chance to catch up on the classics, a way to practice effective listening, learn English or a tool for students whose learning disabilities make it tough to read or pay attention, KidsRead2Kids.com gives everyone free access to a growing list of titles.
“There are so many skills kids can pick up from these videos,” Alana said. “With these videos, they can take their time and listen at their own pace.”
The project is a family affair — Alana reads and helps edit copy, Jacob shoots and edits videos, and Reuben designed the logo featuring hand-drawn superheroes.
Additionally, Benjamin, 19, lends a hand on the business side and Julia, 13, helps them choose the titles they’ll read.
“Kids Read 2 Kids was created to help people who have trouble reading to be able to learn to read,” says Jacob, a rising sophomore who himself struggled with reading in school and was diagnosed with dyslexia in fifth grade.
He also wrote a song featured on the website about what life with dyslexia is like and says he wants to give others hope.
“We want to really convey the message that you’re not alone,” he said. “A lot of people who have these kinds of problems that I had, they really feel like they’re alone. We’re here to help.”
‘Shark Tank’ Win
The idea for the reading project had been in the works for some time, but solidified when Alana took part in BBYO’s Building Entrepreneurship program, which teaches high school girls how to start a business. The application-based program, now going into its fifth year, is open to high school girls.
During the school year, the 25-30 girls meet with entrepreneurs and learn about female-owned businesses in Detroit, and then get to present their own pitches to judges in a Shark Tank-like entrepreneurial competitive environment.
“They work with female entrepreneurs who are their mentors to take an idea and make it a reality,” says Katie Fried, regional BBYO director. “They make a visual aid, give a speech, and present to a male and female panel that does the actual judging.” The winner receives $250 in seed money to start her own business.
Alana, now a rising senior, won the competition in the spring of her sophomore year, guided by coach Rachel Schostak, who helped her and the other participants map out their business ideas and presentations.
Schostak, an entrepreneur who built Styleshack.com, her shop-local online platform, from startup to acquisition by Neighborhood SEEN magazine, spoke with the girls about their pitches and how to bring them to life the morning of the competition. She says she remembers being impressed by Alana’s plans.
“I think Alana’s business really stood out to me because the mission was about helping others,” Schostak said. “I think anyone can come up with a product, but I think the products that are really sustainable nowadays are the ones that have a true mission behind them for a do-good cause. I remember telling her, ‘There’s something here because there aren’t a lot of programs out there and platforms for dyslexia.’”
Research To Reality
After winning the competition, the Blumenstein kids set out to build on the idea, researching what types of books they wanted to read and how to film them. They settled on reading the abridged version of classics to a target audience of those well beyond the early story time years. Then, in June, the website was launched.
“We had been thinking about it for a while, but when I did the BBYO Building Entrepreneurship program, that gave me an opportunity to learn more about the business side of things and how we could actually make it a reality,” Alana said.
The project has been well-received at home and abroad, says mother Carol Blumenstein, who is active on related message boards that provide support and resources for parents with diverse needs tied to their children’s learning and development.
She fields comments online from moms all over the world, many whose children are struggling with the same challenges. The website and videos help families realize they are not alone, she says, which is an empowering message.
“When they see KidsRead2Kids.com, and they see the welcome video, and they see what my kids say and they show it to their children, they come back and they’re practically in tears,” she said. “They come back and say, ‘Thank you, thank you.’”
The website has welcomed viewers from more than 40 countries, including the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Israel, Brazil, India, Egypt, Germany, Singapore, Sri Lanka and France, she said. It has been mentioned by the International Dyslexia Association on the organization’s Facebook page and also posted about by a teacher’s organization in Egypt.
“My kids, they all have their own struggles, and yet they each have their own amazing passion to help others,” Carol Blumenstein said. “And you can see it when you go on to KidsRead2Kids.com.”
Alana, Jacob and Reuben say the project reflects the values they’ve grown up with and are their way of doing tikkun olam.
The kids say their role models has been their grandmother, philanthropist and international Jewish leader Penny Blumenstein of Bloomfield Hills, chairman of the board of the Joint Distribution Committee.
“She travels all over the world trying to help people,” Alana says. “She’s really taught us a lot about our responsibility and giving back to the community. She’s such a leader in our Jewish community that it inspires us to try and follow in her footsteps.”
Meanwhile, Reuben, who’s going into sixth grade and designed the logo, says he’s proud to be a part of the project and of what the logo represents. He says: “I just thought whenever you read, you really are a superhero.”
Karen Schwartz Contributing Writer
Photos by Jerry Zolynsky