Getting the right books to underserved children

PHS twins co-founded organization that gets representative literature into the hands of young students of color

By Jim McGaw
Posted 5/22/24

PORTSMOUTH — When Portsmouth High School senior Keira Boxell joined her twin sister, Mayakla, and their Providence friend, Jully Myrthil, on a leadership journey to South Africa last …

This item is available in full to subscribers.

Please log in to continue

Log in

Register to post events

If you'd like to post an event to our calendar, you can create a free account by clicking here.

Note that free accounts do not have access to our subscriber-only content.

Day pass subscribers

Are you a day pass subscriber who needs to log in? Click here to continue.

Getting the right books to underserved children

PHS twins co-founded organization that gets representative literature into the hands of young students of color


PORTSMOUTH — When Portsmouth High School senior Keira Boxell joined her twin sister, Mayakla, and their Providence friend, Jully Myrthil, on a leadership journey to South Africa last summer, she saw a gaping hole that needed to be filled.

“It’s so cliché, but it really was a life-changing experience. We visited youth, and schools and after-school programs, and they just had so much love to give and were clearly so passionate about learning,” said Keira. “But when we were looking at their libraries and their classrooms, they didn’t have the resources to support the desire the children had to learn.”

Returning to America, Keira said she thought of ways they could support those “amazing” students, and it kept coming back to literature.

“I felt so privileged coming back to the school that I have, Portsmouth High School. I decided to do a book drive, and Jully and Makayla supported me,” she said.

Jully, a senior at Village Green Virtual Charter School in Providence, had already done something similar following a separate leadership journey to the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Before I left, I asked them, ‘How can I support you? You’ve given us food, you’ve given us community. What can I do to support you?’ The organizer told us they have a library, but they don’t have any books,” Jully recalled.

But the school leaders didn’t want just any books. They wanted literature that recognized them and spoke to their students, because the great majority of them were people of color.

“They were really adamant about having representative literature, because on the Virgin Islands, those are mostly Black students,” Jully said. “I remembered back to when I was younger: I’ve always been a reader. I loved reading. But I didn’t really see myself reflected in the stories I read until high school, freshman year. That was the first time I read a book with a person of color as the main character. I felt so seen, and it really boosted my confidence. I realized that I could be the author of my own story, I could be the main character. I wanted to make sure the students in the Virgin Islands had that confidence.”

So Jully got together with her friends and through a book drive, they shipped 150 volumes to the Virgin Islands.

After the trio returned from South Africa, a light bulb went off in their heads.

“Why just do one book drive — why not make this sustainable?” said Keira. “And so we turned it into Shades of Knowledge. The goal of our organization is to continue the mission of enhancing literature and making sure children have access to representative literature so they’ll feel supported and confident as they move through the world.”

This year, the organization has worked toward sharing hundreds of books to underserved communities in South Africa and Guatemala. Its focus is mainly elementary school students, but it plans to also assist schools that teach up to grade 12, Makayla said.

“A couple of months ago, our international relations coordinator was able to ship over 50 books to orphanages in Guatemala,” said Jully. “We saw how their faces lit up and excited they were, because that was one of their first times actually having a book. Seeing the impact that we had so quickly was really inspiring and motivating us to keep doing our work.”

Makayla, Shades of Knowledge’s chief operating officer, said because the organization is still small and just starting out, members collect many books by contacting people that may be able to help. 

“We’ve gotten a lot of books that way, so we go through the books and see which ones might not be right for the age range, or aren’t representative of the kids we’re sending the books to,” said Makayla, who’s originally from Atlanta along with her sister but has lived in Portsmouth for six years. They will both attend Boston College in the fall.

The organization, which is working toward establishing a nonprofit status, has a partnership with Amazon, which has shipped more than 200 books this year alone. The group makes sure to find out which type of books the schools and communities are looking for before they’re donated.

“I don’t want to just take that away from them,” said Keira. “How are we supposed to support them if we’re not having that conversation? We ask them, and they sent a list and we included different books that are of interest to them.”

Added Mayayla, “But we want to send whatever we can to expand their knowledge even more, because they don’t have a diverse selection of books at their schools.”

Well-attended fund-raiser

On May 11, Shades of Knowledge presented “Black Art Through the Ages,” a fund-raiser held at the Black Lives Matter Rhode Island office in Pawtucket. A jazz band comprised of PHS students provided the music for the well-attended event, which was sponsored by the Providence branch of the NAACP.

“When we were thinking about which theme we should make for the event, art was a pretty easy choice because often times art affects literature, and vice versa,” said Makayla. “We wanted something that would allow people to think more deeply about why exactly we’re doing this, and we also wanted to involve a lot of youth from the community to get involved as well. So, all the art that we have is from members of the community that are still high school age or younger who have graciously donated their artwork for us to auction off.” 

While Shades of Knowledge’s current focus is on book drives, it plans to have more of a local impact by building a literacy and reading comprehension program first in Providence, with a possible expansion throughout Rhode Island.

“We really see a need for greater access to supplementary reading comprehension and literacy learning, especially for elementary school children of color,” Jully said. “We just want to be part of the movement to improve people’s access to literature and reading comprehension skills, so they’re more successful in the future.”

To learn more about Shades of Knowledge or to make a donation, visit

2024 by East Bay Media Group

Barrington · Bristol · East Providence · Little Compton · Portsmouth · Tiverton · Warren · Westport
Meet our staff
Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.