Student:

Nora Sullivan.

School:

Merion Mercy Academy in Merion Station, where she is a senior.

Achievement:

Sullivan, 17, has started a program called Story Santa, which provides new books to needy families in the Philadelphia area at Christmas. The effort is part of Operation Santa Claus, sponsored by the Office for Youth and Young Adults of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Question:

What is Story Santa all about?

Answer:

From the time when all I could do was look at pictures while my parents read stories to me, books have always been a great gift for me. Last year, I initiated a program to ask book publishers to donate books to allow me to share that gift with others.

Q:

Why did you start this program?

A:

I had helped deliver gifts and participated in toy drives for Operation Santa Claus for a few years, but I noticed that people didn't always think to donate books. I know the excitement of receiving the perfect toy on Christmas morning, but I also remember the joy of opening a new book. I thought it would be great for the kids to receive books, as well as toys.

Q:

What's the best book you received as a child on Christmas?

A:

My dad used to write books for my family that we would illustrate. Every Christmas Eve, we would sit together, and he would read us the new story. Those books are still among my most precious possessions.

Q:

How many publishers have you contacted, and how did you choose them?

A:

I've contacted 85 publishers, including large publishers, such as Scholastic and Penguin Group, and smaller publishers, such as Paintbox Press and Shenanigan Books. I looked up publishers on the Internet. Most of them are members of the Children's Book Council.

Q:

What do you say to them?

A:

I ask publishers in my letter, "Will one new book for each child on Santa's list make a difference? I think it can."

Q:

How have they responded?

A:

I received books from about 25 publishers. Some sent nine or 10 books; one company sent 212. I was amazed by the generosity of all of them. Some sent personal notes. One couple that publishes books in New Jersey even delivered the books themselves, so I got to meet the author and illustrator of the books that they donated.

Q:

How many books were donated for Christmas last year?

A:

Five hundred and fifty.

Q:

How many books have been donated this year?

A:

Nine hundred and sixty.

Q:

Where do you store them?

A:

I store them at home in my basement until it's time to deliver them to the Operation Santa Claus program to be wrapped and distributed to the children on Christmas Eve.

Q:

What books have been donated? For what ages?

A:

I've received everything from board books shaped like ducks and bunnies for babies to chapter books for teenagers.

Q:

Do you ever sneak a read?

A:

I've skimmed through them while sorting them. I especially like seeing the ones I read when I was younger.

Q:

Have you donated any books yourself?

A:

All of the books were donated by book publishers. The Children's Book Council even sent books themselves in the name of all of their members.

Q:

Will you help deliver books and other gifts this year?

A:

Yes. As part of Operation Santa Claus, my friends and I will dress up as Santa and his elves and deliver presents on Christmas Eve. It's great to see the joy on the children's faces.

Q:

When children received books last year, were their reactions positive?

A:

Although the children don't open their presents in front of us, the families are always grateful for the gifts. Last year, we were also able to donate some of the books to schools where Merion students volunteer in after-school programs for needy kids. Some of the classes sent back enthusiastic thank you letters.

Q:

What book are you hoping to receive this Christmas?

A:

My parents usually do a good job of surprising me with a novel that I'll enjoy. I've read books by Ian McEwan and Don DeLillo recently that I thought were great, and I loved

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

by Jonathan Safran Foer. We have so many books around our house that there's always something to read when I can find the time.

What her teacher, Pat Sack, said:

I think the Story Santa program is great because it was born of Nora's love of reading and awareness of a need in the community, and also because it benefits younger students. A student who learns the joy of reading receives more than a one-time gift.

- Shannon Hallamyer