Teen uses Bar Mitzvah money to give school libraries a boost

Teen uses Bar Mitzvah money to give school libraries a boost

URBANA – "Now, you are a man."

So go the words told to many a boy on his Bar Mitzvah day, the rite of passage that signifies adulthood in the Jewish world. The boy – or girl if it's a Bat Mitzvah – learns about Judaism and reads in Hebrew from the Torah, the Jewish holy book, in front of family, friends and congregants.

And afterward, they all celebrate.

Along with coming of age, a Bar Mitzvah often means lots of presents and a nice boost for the college fund.

But for Daniel Downie of Urbana, to receive wasn't good enough. He wanted to give.

So for a tzedakah project – an act of charity – Downie asked the guests at his July 30 ceremony, if they wanted, to forgo the present and donate to a reading charity instead.

"I just thought this would be a really fun one to do," Downie said. "I really like to read a lot."

His mother, Deborah Katz-Downie, approved. "Not all these families can afford to buy books like our family can," she said.

The Urbana High School ninth-grader already had groups and places in mind: Leal Elementary School Library in Urbana; Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation, which at Downie's suggestion used the money to strengthen the Urbana Middle School library; and First Book (www.firstbook.org), which donates books to children in need nationwide.

"He was really dead-set about where he wanted donations to go, and why," said Deborah. "I thought it was awesome, really."

Downie's guests took his words to heart – and checkbook, donating about $6,600 total, with more than $1,000 each to the Leal library and Champaign Urbana Schools Foundation.

Gail Glende Rost, executive director of the school foundation, said the donation gives students a role model, as well as new books. "This money, he could have gotten a gift for himself and he chose not to do it," Rost said. "It's pretty extraordinary. We were really pleased, because it's such an example."

For Downie, the "whys" of promoting literacy started from his own experience. As a child, he had struggled with reading, often finding he didn't enjoy the books available to him.

When he learned what he did like – fantasy – he ran with the subject, sharing discussions with friends over favorite authors like J.R.R. Tolkien of "Lord of the Rings" fame and R.A. Salvatore, author of the "Forgotten Realms" series. But, Downie said, it was hard to find complete series of what he wanted, especially those books that were written for advanced readers, with wordier, more intricate text that didn't stray too old in subject matter.

"He was really frustrated, initially, in finding books at his level that were of high interest to him," said Deborah. "Once we were able to do that, it was just wonderful."

Downie hopes his Bar Mitzvah money will help fund books like those that still fascinate him. "I hope more children will be interested in reading," he said, though he's guessing his fantasy book picks will appeal to boys more than girls.

Rost said Downie's donation is unprecedented. "That's the largest gift we're ever gotten from a child – I mean, he's a teenager," she said.

For Downie, he's glad he didn't wait to adulthood to start giving back to the world around him. "It's just good to start early," he said. "You don't really need to wait to start to do whatever you want."

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