Kelly Willinger: Education Director

On weekends, Kelly Willinger makes the journey to Long Island with an empty suitcase in tow. She’s going to the Book Fairies warehouse, where educators can receive free books for their schools.  Kelly has a bit of a reputation there.

“I do ‘Supermarket Sweeps’ around the place.  I’m known for taking the most books,” she laughs.

It’s a haul back to Harlem, where Kelly has given away more than 455,000 books to the children in Promise Academy I.

Using her strategic relentlessness and ingenuity, Kelly created the school’s newest library. She also organizes school-wide reading marathons, coordinates a curriculum library for teachers, and engages hundreds of children to become enthusiastic readers. In the 2018 school year alone, PAI students read 75,000 books.

“Everyone [in HCZ] has a piece of the puzzle they put together,” said Willinger. “I’m happy I found my niche.”

Willinger grew up loving the experience of sharing books. Her mother, a librarian, brought Willinger to the library to explore – where she would read everything and anything. In school, Willinger’s classmates enjoyed the “Goosebumps” books with the lights off and a flashlight under their chins.

“Often, you think of reading as sitting by yourself and being quiet. But it could also be an incredibly fun, social experience,” said Willinger. “I want that for our kids.”

When a second-grader expressed that he loved dinosaurs, Willinger found books he might enjoy. She also read some nonfiction about dinosaurs so she can keep up in conversations with the student. Willinger often exchanges recommendations with her students when she walks the halls.

“I want to know what our children are reading, and I want to read it too,” said Willinger. “I’ve read more ‘Captain Underpants’ than I know what to do with.”

One of the best ways to get one of Willinger’s recommendations is the book vending machine – a fully operational vending machine that gives students a bestselling book with a special token. Students of the week and those who read the most books for the week can receive a token.

A student uses her token at the PAI book vending machine.

The books in the vending machines are the rare gems of the school’s lending library – facilitated by Willinger in 2018 when she converted a dean’s closet into a student-organized lending library. Biweekly clean-up is facilitated by a crew of passionate fourth and fifth-grade “junior librarians.”

Kelly Willinger first began teaching at Promise Academy I Elementary while she worked on her master’s degree at Hunter College. She had just completed her Teach for America summer training at a public school in the South Bronx and was blown away by how different the school was to other schools. 

“The teaching, building, level of support – everything was different. It was tough, but I still remember my coaches, principal, and fellow teachers coming into the room to help out,” said Willinger. “Out of everything though, the kids are the best part.”

It’s not uncommon for children to peer into the doorway of Kelly Willinger’s office. One middle-schooler tries to get her attention quietly.

“Mrs. Willinger? Do you have any more?” He says, raising up a battered copy of “Naruto.” Students often visit Willinger’s office to pick through the box of manga (Japanese graphic novels) books she leaves for them.

Before the students leave, they thank her for the books – one boy pauses to give her a hug.

“You are my secret weapon,” he says to Willinger.