A childhood marked by numerous visits to doctors' offices helped Miss University of Southern Mississippi Hannah Roberts develop a passion for two life-changing pursuits – reading and medicine.
Today, the Southern Miss senior from Mount Olive, Miss., is actively engaged in both arenas, having been accepted into the University of Mississippi School of Medicine while continuing to oversee a book donation project that has grown beyond her grandest expectations.
“I was sick a lot as a little kid with asthma, upper respiratory infections, bronchitis and things like that,” said Roberts, who will graduate in May with a degree in biochemistry. “I was at the doctor's office quite a bit, which gave me lots of time to read. I just became obsessed with reading. I've always got my nose buried in a book.”
By the time she entered the sixth grade, Roberts had parlayed her love of reading into a special book donation project for sick and underprivileged kids. With the help of her family and friends, Roberts began collecting new and gently used children's books from a multitude of donors. The initial book drive began around Valentine's Day 2005 which prompted Roberts' grandmother, Shirley Roberts, to suggest “Pages of Love” for the project's title.
Fast-forward to the present and “Pages of Love,” a non-profit organization, has swelled to more than 20,000 book donations to hospitals, clinics, schools, churches and related organizations. Roberts concedes that she never imagined such phenomenal success from the charitable endeavor.
“I honestly did not think I would still be doing this after 10 years,” she said. “It just kind of snowballed after the first year or two. We've sent books to St. Jude's Hospital; Blair Batson Children's Hospital and several schools. I believe that one of the greatest gifts you can ever give a child is a book.”
In keeping with that philosophy, Roberts will host a unique book donation event, “Princesses for Pages” from 2:30-3:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 22 at the Ogletree House on the University's Hattiesburg campus. The event will include tea and photos with Roberts. Those who donate a new or gently used children's book will be admitted free.
A perfectionist by nature, Roberts owns a 4.0 grade-point-average at Southern Miss. In fact, she has never made anything below an “A” as a class grade during her education career. In 2013 she was one of only three Mississippi students awarded the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, which recognize the nation's next generation of top research scientists.
Even though both of her parents are teachers – mother Danna Roberts teaches gifted education at Seminary High and father James Roberts is an agriculture teacher at Sumrall High – Hannah is drawn toward a career in medicine.
“My goal is to work in pediatric reconstructive surgery, helping kids who have been affected by burns, birth defects or other conditions that require reconstruction,” said Roberts. “I have always been good with kids, and I feel like I can make a difference in that particular field.”
Dr. Douglas Masterson, associate chair in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Southern Miss, has no doubt that Roberts will excel in the medical profession. Roberts has spent countless hours working in Masterson's lab under his tutelage. She is easy to spot on the Hattiesburg campus, sporting her pink backpack emblazoned with the label: Chemistry Queen.
“Hannah is among the most ‘driven' students I have had the privilege to teach during my time at USM,” said Masterson. “She is the ultimate go-getter, and it has served her well both in and out of the classroom. Ten years from now I expect Hannah will be among the top research physicians in the country.”
In addition to her academic prowess, Roberts is also an accomplished violinist and will put those skills on display this summer as a contestant in the Miss Mississippi Pageant. Two years ago she finished as first runner-up in the annual contest but chose to skip the event last year.
In 2010 Roberts was honored by Forrest General Hospital Spirit of Women as the youth Spirit in Action Award winner for her efforts with Pages of Love. That same year she took home the National Youth Role Model Award. Kathy Emmons, Spirit of Women coordinator, has been a staunch ally and facilitator for Roberts during the amazing evolution of Pages of Love.
“What makes Hannah extraordinary is that even though she is from a small, rural town in Mississippi, she has big dreams and works hard to achieve them,” said Emmons. “Not only does she help sick children, she helps those with whom she comes in contact by demonstrating a servant's heart – one that sees a need and take action to help those who cannot help themselves.”
And what is Roberts reading now? “Kisses for Katie,” the bestselling account of a courageous 18-year-old from Nashville who gave up every comfort and convenience to become the adoptive mother to thirteen girls in Uganda.
Talk about your Pages of Love.
More information about Pages of Love and the “Princesses for Pages” event can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/pagesoflove2005. Roberts can also be followed Twitter @_chemistryqueen.