Millions are about to have access to free e-books. Thanks, Obama.

Major publishers came together to make more than $250 million in books available for free.

What was your favorite book growing up?

Was it a classic like "The Secret Garden," "The Phantom Tollbooth," or "Stuart Little"? Or maybe something with a bit of mystery like "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" or something from the "Hardy Boys" series? Or maybe it was something else altogether.

Most of us can probably think back to our childhoods and remember a book or two that fueled a love of reading and a thirst for knowledge — a book with near-magical qualities, a book that quite literally changed your life.


Photo by US Army Africa/Flickr.

But did you know that growing up in a house with lots of books can give you a major advantage in life?

That's what a study conducted by the University of Nevada in 2014 found. The more books kids have at home, the better they'll do in school. This rang true across across gender, class, and even country. Those with the fewest books — typically children from low-income families — benefitted the most per additional book added to the home. The books don't even have to be children's books. If you grew up in a household where your parents had lots and lots of books on their shelves, that's enough to give you an advantage.

"Regardless of how many books the family already has, each addition to the home library helps children do better" in school, the study says. "Each additional book has a greater impact on the performance of someone who had only a small home library than it does on the performance of someone from a home overflowing with books."

With this in mind, a new program is looking to make books more accessible to children and their families than ever before.

Photo by George Redgrave/Flickr.

More than $250 million worth of e-books are soon going to be available to kids in need — for free.

And these aren't just any titles. A handful of major publishers have signed on to the program, so these are thousands of popular, award-winning books handpicked by the Digital Public Library of America's Curation Corps.

It's part of President Obama's ConnectED initiative to bring broadband Internet and educational materials to kids around the country. The New York Public Library agreed to take on the task of creating a special e-reader for this new program.

It's called Open eBooks, and it's going to make a big difference in the lives of children and families who can't afford to stock their shelves with lots of books.

The Open eBooks app interface. Images from the New York Public Library/Apple App Store.

First lady Michelle Obama posted a video to the White House's YouTube page announcing Open eBooks' launch last week.

GIFs via The White House/YouTube.

For children with access to the app, it'll be like having a library in the palm of their hands.

Access to the app's library will be provided by a child's school, local library, after-school program, or from other programs aimed at kids in need.

Visually, the app is a lot like other e-reader apps such as Amazon Kindle or iBooks. The big difference is that the book selection is aimed at children in kindergarten through 12th grade and that all the books are free to borrow.

An example of one of the books. Images from the New York Public Library/Apple App Store.

Some barriers remain — for example, what about kids from families who don't own tablets or smartphones? — but that gap is closing.

A recent study found that 85% of families living below the poverty line with children between the ages of 6 and 13 have a tablet or smartphone. One goal of the ConnectED initiative is making it easier for children to borrow these devices from schools or local libraries, as well as gaining access to Wi-Fi.

Do physical books no longer matter? Of course they do. Open eBooks isn't meant to completely replace physical books, but rather to complement them. It's just another building block helping level the playing field between kids who come from houses stocked full of books and kids whose parents can't otherwise afford to keep books and reading material on their shelves.

It's ensuring a future in which all kids can experience that same magical feeling you felt when you read your favorite book as a kid.

You can learn more about Open eBooks at the program's website, and you can watch Michelle Obama's launch announcement below.

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Brian Olesen never imagined he would end up homeless.

The former U.S. Air Force medic had led a full and active life, complete with a long career in the medical field, a 20-year marriage, and a love of anything aquatic. But after hip surgery and chronic back pain left him disabled in 2013, he lost his ability to work. Due to changes in eligibility requirements, he couldn't qualify for federal veteran housing programs. His back issues were difficult to prove medically, so he didn't qualify for disability. Though he'd worked his whole life, having no income for five years took its toll. He got evicted from a couple of apartments and found himself living on the streets.

But in 2018, two things completely turned Olesen's life around. He was able to both qualify for disability and to move into an affordable housing community in Miami's Goulds neighborhood called Karis Village.

When people think of affordable housing, they don't usually picture a place like Karis Village. The 88-unit development is brand new, and built with an attention to design that is not always expected for developments that serve as home to people on limited incomes. The apartments have tile floors, marble countertops, and all new appliances and furniture, and the grounds are beautiful and well-kept, with a playground and common areas for residents to gather.

Brian Olesen in his kitchen at Karis VillageCapital One

Karis Village isn't just a housing development; it's a home and a community. Half of the units are set aside for veterans who have experienced homelessness, like Olesen. The other half are largely occupied by single-parent families.

"To me, this building was just a gift," says Olesen. "All of the different parties that got together to put this building together… making half the building available to veterans. We've got no place to go."

Addressing veteran homelessness was one of the goals of Karis Village, which was built through a partnership that included Carrfour Supportive Housing — a mission-driven, not-for-profit affordable housing organization in southern Florida — and Capital One's Community Finance team. More than just an affordable place to live, the community has full-time staff on hand to help coordinate services—from addiction recovery programs to transportation options to job search and placement. Also included are peer counselors who provide emotional and psychological support for residents.

Karis Village, an affordable housing community in Miami, Florida.Capital One

Carrfour President and CEO Stephanie Berman says the core function of the services team on site is to build a supportive community.

"Often when you think of folks leaving homelessness and coming into housing, you think of shelters or some kind of traditional housing," she says. "You don't really think about a community, and that's really what we build and what we operate. What we're really striving to create is community. We find that our families thrive when you create a sense of community."

The intention to create a supportive community at Karis Village was a priority from the get go. Fabian Ramirez, a Capital Officer on Capital One's Community Finance team, says the bank did a listening tour in southern Florida to explore community development and affordable housing options in the area and to hear what was most needed. After deciding to partner with Carrfour, the bank provided not only an $8 million construction loan and a $25 million low income housing tax credit (LIHTC) investment to help build Karis Village, but it also kicked in a $250,000 social purpose grant to help fund the social support services that would be put in place for residents.

"It's not just all about providing the brick and mortar," says Ramirez. "It's about being able to contribute to the sustainability of the development and of the lives of the people who move into the building."


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Olesen says he and his fellow residents benefit greatly from the network of support services offered in the building. He says a counselor comes to meet with him once a month, sometimes right in his apartment. He also gets help maintaining a connection with the Veteran Affairs office. Other services include social workers and counselors for drug addiction and alcoholism.

Olesen loves being around other veterans, and he says hearing the sound of children playing keeps the community lively. He says anywhere else he could afford to live on disability wouldn't be nearly as nice and would likely involve shared kitchens and bathrooms and neighborhoods you wouldn't want to go out in at night.

If it weren't for Karis Village, Olesen says he doesn't know where he would be today: "I had nowhere to go and this is a safe, beautiful place to spend my retirement."

"I don't think they could have done a much better job of putting this place together and supplying us with what we need," he says. "I have so much appreciation for the ability to have a place to live. And then you add to that that it's beautiful and completely furnished and you didn't need to bring anything—I don't know what more you could ask for."

Karis Village and another development for veterans built the same year enabled the neighborhood of Goulds to meet the requirements set forth by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to declare an end to veteran homelessness in the area.

Ending veteran homelessness altogether is a complex task, but communities like Karis Village show how it can be done—and done well. When government agencies, non-profit organizations, and corporate funding programs come together to solve big problems, big solutions can be built and maintained.

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