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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.

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

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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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Aging is a weird thing. We all do it—we truly have no choice in the matter. It's literally how time and living things work.

But boy, do we make the process all kinds of complicated. The anti-aging market has created a 58.5 billion-dollar industry, with human beings spending their whole lives getting older spending buttloads of money to pretend like it's not happening.

I'm one of those human beings, by the way, so no judgment here. When I find a product that makes me look as young as I feel inside, I get pretty giddy.

But there's no doubt that our views on aging—and by extension, our perspectives on our own aging bodies—are influenced by popular culture. As we see celebrities in the spotlight who seem to be ageless, we enviously tag them with the hashtag #aginggoals. The goal is to "age well," which ultimately means looking like we're not aging at all. And so we break out the creams and the serums and the microdermabrasion and the injections—even the scalpel, in some cases—to keep the wrinkles, crinkles, bags, and sags at bay.

There's a big, blurry line between having a healthy skincare routine and demonizing normal signs of aging, and we each decide where our own line gets drawn.

This is where Justine Bateman comes in.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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