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The Best Year of My Life
In May of 2016, I retired after 30 years of teaching mostly kindergarten and first grade. Primary teachers tend to be book lovers and I am no exception! Over the years I had created an extremely extensive library of high quality children’s books to use in my classroom.
In 2012 my long-time fascination with the African continent led to a month-long camping trip with other teachers to four countries in sub-Saharan Africa. While we were there, we visited some very rural schools. Noticing the total lack of any supplemental library materials, I filed away a plan that somehow, someday, I would find a way to get my classroom library to Africa. So at my retirement party, I requested only donations to “help me get my children’s books to Africa,” even though I had absolutely no idea how I would do that.
In early June I began an internet search, finding that most organizations would happily take my books and my money, and the books would be sent off with no further communication. But that wasn’t enough for me. I wanted a personal connection, a way to know that my precious books were making a difference and that perhaps I could visit them one day. My search continued. After a frustrating week with no leads, I found a link with a number, called the African Library Project, spoke to a real person, and knew I’d found a match
I spent the next few months boxing and shipping many of my personal books, which totaled about 3 libraries of 1000 books each. But word got around. All of a sudden boxes of books were showing up outside my door! On a visit across the country to my parents’ home in Buffalo, New York, I mentioned what I was doing, and within days their church and some old high school friends had collected enough books for a complete library! This was fun!!
I returned home to New Mexico. Back at my old school, I volunteered with a service club, K-Kids, which I had formerly sponsored. The kids listened eagerly to my presentation about the African Library Project and immediately and enthusiastically agreed that this would be a great school project. During the year those kids, plus numerous friends, school staff members, neighbors, and community members helped me collect, pack, and fundraise shipping costs for 6 more libraries (for a total of 11 libraries of 1,000 books each) in just under a year! I was having the time of my life!
Then ALP referred me to Project Humanity, one of their two partners in Kenya (along with Rongo University). I was thrilled to learn that a volunteer trip was being planned to aid in the distribution of the first ever libraries shipped by ALP to Kenya and to visit schools who had applied for the next wave of libraries to be delivered in 2018. I immediately signed up knowing I had 3 libraries on that boat to Kenya. While it seemed rather unlikely that I could possibly see my own books in their new homes, the dream wedged itself in the back of my mind.
In May 2017 a group of 20 US volunteers were off to Rusinga Island, Kenya, located in Lake Victoria. First, we distributed books to representatives from each school. Over the next few days I was privileged to visit over 20 schools, including the three that housed the libraries I had helped create. My tears flowed freely as I experienced the wonder, smiles, and joy on those children’s faces as they opened a book, some for the first time in their young lives!
My desire to “get my books to Africa” had led me on a full circle first-year-of-retirement journey that has set the course for the next few years of my life. I plan to continue to make libraries, to speak and encourage others to make libraries, and to return to visit the libraries in Kenya. I know in my heart that those libraries will have a lasting impact on the lives of students, their teachers, and their communities for a long time to come!
Thank you, African Library Project and Project Humanity, for making my dream come true!
Sharon Allen, June 2017
To learn more about the arrival of the books in Kenya, click here.