By Karina Gerry
Generous, inspiring, compassionate and dedicated, are just a few of the ways people describe 15-year-old Huntington resident Michael Donatelli.
“Michael just as a son has taught me patience, inspiration and truly the true meaning of giving back to others especially during this time of year,” Jennifer Donatelli, Michael’s mom, said.
A sophomore at Chaminade High School in Mineola, Donatelli has a long list of accomplishments for his short 15 years. In 2018 he created the nonprofit, Books for Babies, with his brother Nicholas and friend Catarina Chelius. Inspired by their love for reading, the teenagers found a way to donate their old baby books and promote literacy to underprivileged families across the Island and abroad.
“They both love to read and saw that there was a need for an organization like this in local communities as well as the country and abroad,” Jennifer Donatelli said. “They wanted to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged children by being able to provide them with books in the hope that they too will grow up to be avid readers.”
Books for Babies accepts donations for babies and toddlers up to 4 years old. Once the books are collected they are sorted and packaged into custom-designed reusable tote bags with the nonprofit’s logo. Volunteers then distribute the books to homeless shelters, family service leagues, soup kitchens and orphanages.
“They had their research backed, they looked into literacy rates and just found what a difference it makes, the books that are read to very early ages,” said Michael Strandberg, math teacher at Chaminade and moderator of Catholics for Life. “They found that if they could get more books into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have many, that they could help them for the rest of their lives and improve their academic achievement.”
In November, Michael partnered with Catholics for Life, a national organization of which he is a member, to lead a week-long book drive at Chaminade where they collected hundreds of books. These books were packaged and sent to 250 parishes in the Solomon Islands, located in Southeast Asia.
“It was very impressive how Michael led a drive for a school of over 1,600 students,” Strandberg said. “He prepared announcements to be read each day, he prepared a flier and put it around the school.”
During the pandemic, Michael was concerned about the children who still wanted and needed books, but the organizations and groups he worked with were closed. He decided to create a Books for Babies YouTube channel, where each night he read a baby book and shared it to the channel, hoping to inspire children to read during their time at home. Soon it caught on and children across the country were volunteering to read their favorite books for the channel.
“It was a nice way to try to keep it going, and stay connected,” Jennifer Donatelli said.
In addition, Michael and his brother Nicholas started a book distribution drive-up. Using a local church’s parking lot, they donated tote bags filled with baby books to anyone willing to come and receive them. The response to the drive-up was a success and now the nonprofit holds one every month.
Michael’s dedication to Books for Babies means he’s always thinking of new ways to grow the organization. He decided to create a literacy program, Opening the World of Learning, also known as OWL, to further the group’s mission of promoting reading to underserved communities. OWL brings books to life at nursery schools in underserved communities across the Island. Books for Babies’ volunteers provide a fun-filled interactive story, followed by an enjoyable activity, and at the end each child receives a free tote bag filled with age appropriate books.
On top of his work for Books for Babies, Michael maintains honor roll status at his school, is a member of nine clubs, volunteers at his church as an usher, volunteers at Huntington Youth Court and is studying for his black belt in jujitsu.
“He is quiet, he is shy, he is unassuming but he does so much to help everybody else,” Andrew Kelapire, owner of Shindokan Budo Long Island, said.
Michael’s compassion and willingness to help others is what motivated Jennifer Donatelli to nominate him as a TBR News Media Person of the Year.
“I’m so incredibly proud of my son,’’ the mother said. “He’s the type of person that does things and likes to fall under the radar or without anyone fussing. He kind of just likes to do his own thing and volunteer and help others very quietly — and others see his generous spirit and how he is.”