Milford reading sisters going global

In October, Zaria, left, and Hailey Willard, of Milford, were on the “Rachael Ray” show.

MILFORD — Only one word describes sisters Zaria and Hailey Willard’s overnight success.

“Phenomenal,” said 13-year-old Zaria. “That’s the only way I can explain it.”

The Milford sisters have gained national attention after their nighttime Facebook live shows in which they read bedtime stories to children across the world went viral.

“I never imagined this would happen,” said 8-year-old Hailey. “I didn’t think we were going to go viral because I thought it was just reading. I didn’t think everyone cared about reading as much as we do.”

But obviously, they were wrong. The sisters have been featured on “Good Morning America,” “ABC World News,” “Inside Edition,” “Rachael Ray,” and other national platforms carrying out their mission of encouraging more children to read.

“To be honest I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere,” Zaria said. “We went from one viewer to 500 and then, out of nowhere, things changed.”

As first reported by the Delaware State News in July, their audience has now grown to more than 11,000 on Facebook and 6,000 on their Instagram page, and they plan to continue to spread their love for reading not only nationwide, but worldwide as well.

“The attention feels good,” Zaria said. “Being on those different shows were fun. It’s been a really fun experience.”

In October, the sisters were on the “Rachael Ray” show, which has been their favorite place so far.

“New York was fun,” Zaria said. “There were a lot of people there. We didn’t get a chance to be on “Good Morning America.” We called in over the phone, but we were actually on the set of the ‘Rachael Ray’ show. So the experience of being there in person in front of a live audience was great.”

“There was a backstage room with a bunch of treats and when we went on ‘Rachael,’ it was amazing. She felt like a friend that we knew forever.”

Reaching out to Ghana

The sisters, formerly of Dover, have friends in Accra, Ghana, who told them that the Deacons Academy Montessori did not have books for its library. They wanted to do something about it, so they gave themselves a goal of raising $5,000 and collecting 500 books to ship them to schools and help build a new library in West Africa.

On her show, Ms. Ray presented the girls with a check for $5,000 courtesy of Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach to help realize their goal.

On Oct. 24, Zaria and Hailey Willard, ages 13 and 8, respectively, were honored by the Delaware State Board of Education with certificates of excellence.

“They smashed their goals of 500 books,” said Victoria Willard, their mother. “We have over 6,000 books. We were very grateful for Rachael’s contribution. We can’t thank her enough.”

She said the sisters want to go to Ghana and personally hand the books out to the students themselves.

“We have the money, but once I sat down with the accountant, it’s not nearly enough to send all those books and us over there as well,” Ms. Willard said. “We’re trying to raise more money to see how we can get over there. We’re going to find a way to make it happen.”

‘A long way’

The sisters’ love for reading is credited to their mother, who used to read to them while they were in her womb. Once they were born, she held them in her arms as she read to them, or sat next to them as they drifted off to sleep.

Ms. Willard, who was initially hesitant about the sisters starting a Facebook Live page, never envisioned it would take off as it did.

“I remember when only my mother and I used to be their only viewers,” Ms. Willard said. They’ve come a long way. I’m very proud of them.”

On Oct. 18, Zaria and Hailey Willard celebrated exceeding their book drive goal of 500 at South Dover Elementary School, collecting over 5,000 books in all. Contributions from South Dover Elementary School have allowed the two bookworms to gather enough books to help build a library at Deacons Academy Montessori in Accra, Ghana.

The sisters said their newfound fame does have a few drawbacks, but they deal with it the best way they can.

“It’s not a challenge, but when people come up to us saying they recognize us, it’s a little different,” Zaria said. “We like to say hi to everyone, but sometimes it’s a little overwhelming.”

Hailey said they try to plan out their schedule and stick to it no matter what.

“Things are a little different now,” Hailey said. “We have a process of who reads and who doesn’t read. Even if we’re not feeling good, we have to keep going no matter what because we have an audience to cater to.”

‘Big plans’

The sisters have other endeavors they wish to pursue as well.

“I want to have our own show reading to kids on Disney or Nickelodeon,” Hailey said. “We have big plans.”

Zaria shared the sentiment.

“We’re trying to catch the attention of Tyler Perry and work at his new studio,” Zaria said. “That would be amazing.”

But for now, Zaria and Hailey have moved from reading books to writing them. The half-sisters wrote a book about the first time Zaria met her half-brother, who helped illustrate the book.

Zaria and Hailey Willard have moved from reading books to writing them. The half-sisters wrote a book about the first time Zaria met her half-brother, who helped illustrate the book.

“When I met their father I already had Zaria and he had his son,” Ms. Willard said. “Then we had Hailey, a son and a set of identical twin girls.”

The book is expected to be published soon. It’s the first of a five-part series gradually focusing on each kid being born.

“We just finished the book,” Zaria said. “It’s been finished for a while, but with everything that’s been going on, we haven’t had the time to focus on it. It’s going to be about blended military families because that’s what my family and I are.

“The first book is about when I met my brother and how I felt as a kid with new people coming into our space. At first, I didn’t feel like sharing my mom and then I got used to it.”

Once the book is completed, their ultimate goal is to have former first lady Michelle Obama read their book with them to their followers on Facebook Live.

“That would be amazing,” Zaria said. “We just love her and everything that she stands for. We know all of her quotes by heart. She’s our inspiration. That would mean everything to us if that happens.”

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