Astoria resident brings diverse children’s books to kids virtually across the borough

Reem Aliessa, a program manager for Citi Volunteers, partnered with New York Cares to bring diverse books into the homes of vulnerable kids across the city. (Photo by Citi)

Citibank employees and Astoria resident Reem Aliessa are bringing diverse, educational readings to Queens kids through the Story Anytime project, where children’s books are read aloud and sent out to schools across the borough and New York City.

Aliessa, a program manager for Citi Volunteers, partnered with New York Cares’ Story Anytime project to continue Citi’s outreach throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, sharing literature with kids from neighborhoods facing food insecurity, racial disparities and barriers to education.

Citi has been a partner with New York Cares for decades and works with the nonprofit annually on different volunteer opportunities. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Citi was struggling to figure out how to continue its philanthropic work and adapt to new virtual constraints.

Aliessa said getting involved with the Story Anytime program was a great way to keep giving back to their community when it wasn’t safe to do so in person.

“Our world changed — we couldn’t have any in-person events. Our work was really focused on being together, rolling up our sleeves, cleaning up parks and feeding [the] homeless,” Aliessa said. “And then we were in this new world where we had to volunteer virtually.”

Citi joined New York Cares’ virtual literacy program to help alleviate the educational gaps during the pandemic. As children across New York City were shifting to remote learning, this program was meant to make up for the lack of access to physical books.

“There were many challenges as libraries closed and schools closed — many kids may not have had books at home and weren’t able to go out to the store or library to get one,” Aliessa said.

The recordings are shared through Google Drive where teachers from schools in central Queens, East Brooklyn and the Bronx can access them as a virtual library and share them with their students.

As a daughter of Syrian immigrants, Aliessa took this opportunity to share stories that would uplift children who don’t often see themselves represented in literature.

“Growing up, I never read a book about Arab characters. I never read about Muslim characters. So, I thought this was my opportunity to find a book that is near and dear to my heart, where I can share it with an entire school virtually just by recording myself reading it.”

Aliessa chose the book “Muslim Girls Rise” by Saira Mir. The book introduces readers to different inspirational Muslim women in society — some being judges, activists and authors. 

Citi employees will be making new recordings in the coming months, adding 40 books to the virtual library.

Aliessa said that her colleagues have loved this experience and appreciated being able to bring a variety of books directly to children in need. 

“We understand that we’re a bank but at the end of the day, part of our mission is to enable growth and progress in the communities where we have a footprint,” Aliessa said. “We’re able to make a positive difference in someone’s life and it allows our staff to have pride in the company they work for.”