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Local Hero – Malaina Ortega

29 September 2017 Written by  By Michelle Lassle
Published in October 2017 Articles

In a world where some people tend to focus on the bad, Malaina Ortega is giving East Bay residents a reason to turn their attention to something good.

The O’Hara Park Middle School sixth grader is proving that you can make a positive impact on your community regardless of your age. While visiting family members in Eldorado Hills, Malaina noticed that the house across the street had a bookshelf outside full of books. When she looked closer she realized that they were out there on purpose, like a free library for residents to borrow books at their leisure. “I thought that was a cool idea,” said Malaina. “I was inspired to do the same thing in my own neighbor­hood.” When Malaina approached her mother about copying the idea, she agreed that it would be nice but wasn’t sure if her daughter’s enthusiasm would pass. After a week, nothing had changed. “I didn’t have anything to get started, so Malaina decided to go through her own books,” said Christine, Malaina’s mother.

Christine realized that they also did not have a spare bookshelf to house the books, so she took to social media. “I posted on one of the swap pages on Facebook because we didn’t have a shelf, and a lovely lady said she had a sunny yellow bookshelf that we could have.” Malaina decorated the shelf with stickers that said “Free Library” and placed it out at the bottom of her driveway. Along with the stickers she attached a sign that explains the rules of the library. “Welcome to the Neighborhood Free Library. Feel free to pick a book or two out. When done, simply return. Hope you enjoy our books as much as we have.” On top of the bookshelf is a return basket for borrowers to leave their finished books. Malaina has made the process as simple as possible. “When you come to the library, you open up the door and can pick out any kind of book that you want and can keep it for as long as you like,” said Malaina. “There’s no limit on how many books you can take. After you’re done, you can come back and put it into the return box.” However, Malaina’s return policy isn’t too strict. “If any kids take a book and don’t bring it back, they can keep it because they probably need it more than we do.”

Since initially placing the bookshelf outside in July, Malaina’s library has grown to over 50 books. “When I posted about the library on social media it received so much attention,” said Christine. “We didn’t expect that. I got a lot of messages and people commenting that it was a great idea.” The news of Malaina’s library began to spread and people started leaving donations, some by the bag-full, including one lady left two paper bags full of books. Malaina can tell that people have been taking advantage of her generosity by the number of books left in the return basket, with some individuals borrowing one but donating a bunch in its place. “We didn’t think this many people would take so quickly to the idea, so we didn’t have a tracking system in place,” said Christine. Malaina has decided to put out a clipboard with paper for individuals to sign their name any time they stop by.

The library has something for everyone. Initially the books were primarily elementary reading levels because that’s what Malaina had in her own collection. However, now there is a wide variety including 13 years and up chapter books, thanks to donations. Amongst the books that have been generously given was a special donation specifi­cally for Malaina. “An author left me a signed copy of her book,” said Malaina. “She wrote a nice message in one for me and left another copy for the library. She found out about us on Facebook.” The number of books has grown so rapidly that Christine’s stepfather had to build a bigger bookshelf to put out next to the Ortega’s mailbox. “We were running out of room! But it’s a good problem to have.”

Outside of her incredible act of kindness, Malaina is like any other middle schooler. She does well in her studies, and her favorite subjects are science and band. “I play the trumpet,” said Malaina. “This is my second year being a part of band. I really enjoy it.” Ironically, Malaina wasn’t the strongest reader at first. “Reading wasn’t her strong subject, but her teacher said that one day it would just click. We just needed to find what her interest was,” said Christine. “And it did.” Now she’s helping other children to try and find their love for reading. “I’m really excited about the fact that this took off, and I’m hoping other neighborhoods start their own,” said Christine. “Kids these days don’t read as much, and this is a great way to keep reading out there.”

If anyone wants to donate some of their own beloved books, they can leave them in the cabinet, in a bag next to the library, or knock on the door and talk with Malaina. She plans on keeping her free library out in front of her house for as long as people keep borrowing books. “I want to keep it out there until nobody is taking books anymore,” said Malaina. “My goal was to share my books, and I hope people keep coming for a long time.”

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