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Article updated: 8/16/2013 2:37 PM

Wayne girl donates more than 170 books to DuPage Family Shelter


Kayla Dunlea's books cover the kitchen table from one end to the other at her home in Wayne.

From works by Jodi Picoult and Nicholas Sparks to numerous kids' books, there are more than 170 in all.

It's a lot of reading material, although you can't fully appreciate that until you see them neatly stacked across the table.

But they aren't really Kayla's books. Not anymore.

On Friday, she donated all the books -- some hers, but many collected from friends, family and neighbors -- to the DuPage Family Shelter in Wheaton.

The shelter offers a safe place to go for women and children displaced from their homes because of domestic violence.

Kayla spent much of the summer gathering books to share with the facility. She asked for help from everyone she knew, even going door-to-door in her neighborhood seeking donations.

"She basically hit up the block," says her mother, Helen Dunlea.

The books slowly piled up in Kayla's bedroom (and in Helen's) for weeks, all so the women at DuPage Family Shelter will have something to take their minds off things.

Kayla can relate to the feelings of isolation that women often feel in such shelters, and she understands the challenges of overcoming such feelings.

Kayla, 17, is profoundly hearing-impaired. She has been since she was born. She has bone-anchored hearing aids in her ears, but it still isn't enough.

Other people often have a difficult time understanding what she is saying. To strangers, it might sound like she is speaking gibberish. But her close friends and her family understand her perfectly well.

"People will not listen or they'll say, 'OK,' and not know what she said," Helen says. "She went through a phase where she allowed people to do that."

It's especially difficult at school. It's hard enough trying to keep tabs on what her teachers are saying. But fellow students used to say they understood what she was saying and they would not understand her at all, or they would simply ignore her.

It came to a point where Helen told her no one was going to help her be understood. If Kayla wanted to be understood, her mother told her, she had to do the work herself.

"I said, 'That's up to you. If you don't feel that what you have to say is important enough, then (let them ignore you),'" Helen says. "'But if you want to be heard, you have to advocate for yourself and keep repeating it until you get your point across.'"

With time, Kayla has learned to do just that. And she has come to respect the women who bring their families into shelters across America. She says it takes great courage for them to do that.

"They advocate for themselves," Kayla says. "I know it's hard because I have to do it myself."

Kayla's project, which she calls Words for Women, started with the goal of providing popular novels for women at the shelter in Wheaton. When she discovered it was a family shelter, she went on to include children's books in her collection.

Now that the books have been donated, she hopes to continue with the project in some other form. She plans to try a book drive at St. Francis High School, where she begins her junior year on Monday. The hope is to expand the project to include shelters in Kane County and possibly other shelters in the area.

When she is out of high school, Dunlea wants to study deaf education as well as special education. She hopes to one day work with preschoolers who share the same difficulties she had growing up.

But for now, she's just hoping to brighten someone's day with a book.

"When you're having a bad day it's always good to read a book to get your mind off something," she says. "If someone in transition is having a bad day, they can at least get their mind off of it."

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