When it comes to future success, reading is one of the most important skills a young person can learn. For that reason, a retired St. Louis school teacher is taking the message to heart and helping kids live Alive and Well in STL.

It's no secret that kids in impoverished areas sometimes aren't given the same opportunities as other kids. But the Books4Kids program, started four years ago by Toni Walling, is helping to level the playing field.

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“We call them small libraries. They get 10 books, five at their grade level and five books their parents can read to them,” said Walling, while sitting in the gymnasium of East St. Louis’ Gordon Bush Elementary Friday afternoon, surrounded by boxes filled with more than 3,000 books for the students at the school.

The books are a gift for the kids to keep.

“Children from low-income homes have really no books in their home to read,” added Walling. “And if they want to get better at reading they have to have some books to practice with.”

So, why is reading such a big deal? How about a much lower chance of joblessness, homelessness and imprisonment in adulthood?

“There's horrible statistics for them catching up and for their future if they're not reading on grade level by the end of third grade,” said Walling.

“Inevitably, starting down here at the foundational level helps later on when it's time to go to high school,” added Gordon Bush Elementary Assistant Principal Juan Haynes.

East St. Louis schools have a district-wide initiative to improve literacy. And the district is recruiting parents to continue the initiative in the classroom and at home.

“They need to know how to read. It's very important,” said father of two Henry Cade.

“I'm always instilling in my children the importance of reading and paying attention in class. My kids love to learn,” said parent Marhanda Anthony.

That enthusiasm, along with a whole new collection of books, is leading to some big plans for the weekend for Anthony’s kindergarten daughter, Amari Eddins.

“I'm gonna read all of them in one day!”

Books4Kids hopes to donate 1,000 small libraries this year. You can help by making a donation on their website. You can also find out how to have the group visit your school.