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Books from Brooklyn to Bulawayo

By Tom Watson on September 13, 2007No Comment

Books from Brooklyn to Bulawayo
By Philip Li, 9/13/07

“We saw. We started thinking. We wanted to do something.”  This is what inspired Mark Grashow and Sheri Saltzberg to launch the US-Africa Children’s Fellowship three years ago to ‘rescue’ unwanted, used text books in New York to fill a huge need for resources and materials in classrooms in Zimbabwe. 

This grassroots initiative started by a retired high school teacher and public health educator exemplifies the difference that an individual, or two, can make.  Today, 35 pairs of sister-schools with 18,000 students on both sides of the Atlantic are learning and building a unique bond with one another.  By design, with two educators at the helm, Mark and Sheri wanted this to be more than just a one-way flow of books.  They wanted to create partnerships and real connections between the schools involved   for teachers, students, their parents and volunteers. 

Their work is profiled in “Giving”, the new book by former President Bill Clinton as an example of the way people are engaging in philanthropic endeavors.

onPhilanthropy spoke with Sheri and Mark about their experience.

How did the US-Africa Children’s Fellowship happen?
When we were in Zimbabwe, we saw the desire and need of teachers for sets of textbooks to help them work with their classes. As a retired teacher, Mark knew that older textbooks were being ‘recycled’ and thought that they could be put to better use.  We did some research and learned that no one else was really doing this kind of work, so we decided to pursue it. We created the 501 ( c ) 3 because we wanted to encourage broad based support and give us entry to other grantmakers. In addition, we wanted the organization to be free standing so that it could be replicated, if others were interested.

What have you learned?
People want to be part of a good effort and people can make a difference. While it can be difficult, it can be done.  Passion and commitment can take you a long way.

If you had a ‘do over’, what would you have done differently?
We would harness our enthusiasm and our desire to jump right in.  This would require us to really taken a step back to flesh out all the details of our business plan.  In a trans-Atlantic effort like ours, it’s all about the logistics of getting the books and other school materials from the US to Zimbabwe. Setting up a collection and distribution system in advance would have made life easier. We spent the first year figuring out how to store thousands of used text books until we were ready to ship, packing it all, and then getting it to the vessel.  And on the backside it is unwinding everything and getting the right books to the right classrooms in the right communities. It’s much more complicated than it might seem.

What’s been the most difficult aspect of doing your work?
Nothing we face here managing logistics or fundraising — compares to the challenges facing the people of Zimbabwe.  With food supplies and petrol scarce in much of  the country and with other important priorities, these needs justifiably supersede everything else  including getting our materials to Bulawayo.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of the US-Africa Children’s Fellowship?
Picking one is too hard.  We love seeing kids reading books in a library that once was empty; having adults ask the schools to start adult literacy programs, listening to students in both countries talk about their pen pals and learning about each others’ lives; and allowing committed teachers to do what they want to do   to educate and empower the next generation.

What  are your future plans?
The future for us is about securing more diverse funding streams so that we can do even more. Right now we have 300 schools requesting to join the program.  The response from being included in President Clinton’s book, “Giving,” has been terrific.  Right now I can’t make my way to the kitchen because of all the boxes in the hallway filled with text books, soccer balls, fabric, and school supplies.   The outpouring of support is great and we appreciate it.  For us, we are all about sustainability and wanting to create something that can stand on its own and is beyond us.  If people want to learn more or support our work we’re at childrensfellowship.org.

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