Everyone talks about how they want to make a difference in the world. Well, talk is cheap. Adults are often better at coming up with 20 reasons why a particular idea won’t work than they are at actually accomplishing something. Kids, however, view the world through a simpler lens based on “sure, why not” rather than “gee, I don’t think that will work.”
Good thing I hang out with the teen members of the San Carlos-Eaton Hills 4-H Club. When I asked a group of seven of them in the Community Service Project if they wanted to team up with the African Library Project to gather books for a school library in Africa, they said yes without hesitation. Their mission, should they choose to accept it, was to gather 1,000 gently-used children’s books and raise $500 to cover shipping costs. After all, this group raised over $1,000 for Haitian Earthquake relief, so they felt up to the task.
So began the 4-H kids’ journey to bring books to the students at Mlumati Primary School in Msahweni, Swaziland. OK, admit it: you’d be hard pressed to find Swaziland on a map without the help of Google Earth. A few quick facts: Swaziland is a kingdom of 1.3 million bordering South Africa and Mozambique. Almost 40% of Swazis have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS, and life expectancy is a mere 48. The adult literacy rate is 87%, and English is one of two official languages. The government is trying to improve the quality and affordability of primary education, but currently students must pay for their school fees and uniforms. School books and supplies are extremely limited, hence the need for books. The African Library Project has established over 50 libraries in Swaziland to date and partners with two organizations that train the teachers and librarians and coordinate book distribution. Each school provides the space, furniture, and staffing for a library.
That’s where we come in. Heather Sutherland, the other 4-H leader and I gave the kids a checklist of tasks, and they were off and running. During meetings they drafted e-mail announcements and articles for the club newsletter, planned a skit for the general meeting to kick off the book drive, made posters and flyers, and planned a bake sale. They decided their slogan for the book drive would be: “A book and a buck, that’s all we ask.” The San Carlos-Eaton Hills 4-H club has about 150 members, so over the course of three months, we pleaded relentlessly for book and cash donations.
Our first fundraiser was a bake sale that brought in $128. At another meeting the kids sold root beer floats for $3, and in a stroke of marketing genius, if you donated a book, your float cost $2. Now the till was up to $284. Things were picking up speed in the book drive category too. Once we put the word out that we were gathering children’s books, the power of human connections and viral marketing took off. I e-mailed the four elementary school librarians in San Carlos and they gladly donated about 200 books. A retired librarian in Menlo Park saw our book drive page on the African Library Project website and gave us 350 books. My boyfriend went to the Friends of the Library sale at Cubberly Community Center in Palo Alto and came back with five bags of books – free. The piles of books in my garage grew like mushrooms.
The last hurdle was the remaining $300. According to the ALP guidelines, book drive organizers must pay to ship the books to a warehouse in New Orleans (approximately $250 media rate), plus contribute a flat fee of $300 to cover our share of the shipping container from New Orleans to Africa. After much discussion and brainstorming, another leader suggested that the kids present their project to the San Carlos Lions Club and ask them for a donation, just like pitching to venture capitalists. Not coincidentally, the president of the Lions Club is also a 4-H leader, so we knew the club would at least give the kids an audience.
The kids prepared their script, rehearsed their parts, and donned their green and white 4-H shirts. As they addressed what was to them a scary group of adults, Heather and I watched proudly from the back of the room. Their presentation was smooth, sincere, and compelling. Then came the crucial moment, the “ask” in business lingo.
“So to summarize, you need $300 to cover the remaining shipping costs?” asked Scot Marsters, the president. Yes, they all nodded in unison. A pause. Silence.
“I move that we donate $300 to the San Carlos 4-H Club for their book drive,” said a member.
“I second the motion,” said another.
Cue seven speechless 4-H members with deer-in-the-headlights expressions (a rare phenomenon for this group of teens). I looked at Heather with my mouth open like a fish and gasped. “Wow, I thought we’d get some kind of donation from them but not the whole amount,” I exclaimed. She too was speechless. Scot made arrangements to get a check to us and they were on to the next item on the agenda.
High fives all around in the parking lot as Heather and I congratulated the kids on closing the deal and reaching their goal. All that remained was the final step of packing the books and lugging them to the post office. The book packing party took place in my garage accompanied by root beer floats left over from the sale. We were thrilled to see books every child should experience like Charlotte’s Web, Corduroy, Dr. Seuss, Little House on the Prairie, Frog and Toad, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Winnie the Pooh, and the Beverly Cleary books. Even if you grow up poor in the United States, your education is free and books in schools and communities are free and plentiful. We have so much. They have so little. In retrospect, it took seven kids a modest amount of effort to gather used books to fill a new library where once was none. Over the course of the three-month book drive, not once did anyone say, this is too hard, or I don’t think we can do it. It didn’t occur to them to fail.
The 4-H kids each wrote a letter to the Swazi students and tucked them in a box accompanied by lots of photos taken at 4-H activities. Anna summed it all up best:
I’m Anna. I am in 8th grade and I love to read. Some of my favorite books are in the boxes. It seems so different there, and I just wanted a little piece of our lives here to share with you. Read as much as you can. By the way, I’m 14 years old, 5’4”, Italian and French, and my favorite color is purple. I hope you guys like the books.
The San Carlos-Eaton Hills 4-H Club is part of an educational youth development program that operates under the auspices of the University of California's Cooperative Extension. Participation in 4-H is open to all youth from their kindergarten year through high school. The San Carlos-Eaton Hills 4-H Club offers children and families opportunities for hands-on learning in a friendly, fun environment. Led by parent volunteers, individual projects meet throughout the year to explore, do, and make. Project members exhibit their crafts and show animals each June at the San Mateo County Fair.