Way back in 1988 to 1990, I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer on a little island in the West Indies called Dominica. Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, although a lot of my mail from home mistakenly went there first. I taught organic agriculture in a village called Coulibistrie. The principal of the school, Ms. Louis, became a friend of mine and she one day confessed to me that working at this school was very discouraging. She felt that the students, Kindergarten through eighth grade, were neglected by the government and that the schools in the nearby capital were granted all the best amenities. I asked Ms. Louis if she could have anything she wanted for her school, what would it be. And she said: Books.
There are many non-profit programs that help get books and school materials to third-world countries, but I chose to contact the International Book Project (IBP) in Lexington, Kentucky because my parents lived there. And I am very lucky they did. About six months before my two year Peace Corps commitment was coming to an end, I took a quick trip home and while I was there I spent a day at the IBP’s warehouse, picking out books for the Coulibistrie School. I could not believe what was available! Beautiful, clean, and sturdy text books in every subject for every grade, not to mention novels, National Geographic magazines, as well as maps and other types of educational wall posters. All of these materials had been donated by schools in and around the Lexington area.
An IBP volunteer kept track of all the books I was claiming for my school and she promised they’d be packed into a forty- foot sea container and sent to the port nearest Coulibistrie and all Ms. Louis and I would have to do is sign for them and then deliver them to the school. A grand total of about fifteen thousand books!
And sure enough, about four or five months later, the books arrived. The whole village was so excited that they all pitched in to get wood and build shelves in the school to protect the beloved books.
Then, every family with a truck drove to the port to collect the boxes wrapped in plastic and carried them to the school. While they were doing all the work, I was in the process of preparing to return home, so I was not able to see the books on their new shelves. But I did receive many letters from kids and parents in Coulibistrie expressing their gratitude. Ms. Louis wrote me and said, “I am so proud to work in one of the finest schools on the island, thanks to all the books.”
Jennifer: When Coulibistrie ordered and received the books from the International Book Project, the whole process went so smoothly and easily. Is that always the case?
Kristen: After nearly fifty years of sending books to the developing world, most of our shipments do run pretty smoothly, but the diversity of countries in which we work and the constantly changing nature of the delivery of books (digital as well as paper) means that we are always adapting to changing environments and circumstances. Because the vast majority of the books we send are going to rural communities in the developing world – more than 95% – the biggest obstacles to achieving our mission is simply the cost of shipping over land to reach these communities, and ensuring we have enough volunteer labor to make sure that every shipment is customized to the needs of that particular partner.
How many books get shipped out a year?
Wow! It must be exciting to see such success with the program. How did you become involved with the project?
Before I joined the International Book Project as Executive Director, I was working in Lusaka, Zambia managing the United States Student Achievers Program. This program, run by the US Department of State, selected exceptional Zambian students and funded their applications to US colleges and universities. Additionally, they paid for the students’ fees for the SAT and ACT exams. The first problem I noticed when I began managing the program was that the ACT and SAT books were very outdated and there weren’t enough of them for the students to take home and study in the evenings.
I called on the International Book Project for help and of course they came through for us immediately. More than 80% of that cohort of students were accepted and fully funded to study at US colleges and universities that year, just the second year of the program. This absolutely would not have happened without access to those college exam prep books.
I’ll give you an example of just one person in that 80% whose life was clearly changed. Anisa was 18 years old when he left Zambia for the first time to study at Fairfield University. He chose to study economics and earned an internship at Price Waterhouse Coopers in Nairobi after just his second year there. Then, he added Chinese to his course of study and went to the Beijing Center for Chinese Studies improve his language fluency. There, he also learned firsthand some of the most cutting edge analysis in what works in developing economies. He will graduate with his bachelor’s in economics this May among the top students in his class. He wishes to return to Zambia and enter government service as an economist to help his fellow Zambians escape the grip of poverty and ease their reliance on Western aid. Before Anisa went to Fairfield University he had never left about 100 mile radius from the village where he was born. Early in his life, his father died from HIV/AIDS and his older brother took the primary responsibility for his family. Working part time at Fairfield, he was able for the first time to financially support his mother and siblings in Zambia. He struggled to use a computer at first, having never had access to one in Zambia, but he knew the effort would pay off. He says that the United States Student Achievers Program gave him the opportunity to continue his education and better his life, his family’s life, and ultimately help his country progress. He also says that without the International Book Project giving him that SAT book in the very beginning that there is no way he would have gotten such a high score and been fully funded to study in the US. Not only did Anisa lift himself out of poverty, he is lifting his entire family out of poverty, and the future will only tell how many Zambians he will impact going forward. This is one person impacted by the International Book Project, and the truth is that there are millions more stories just like this one of people getting access to books that change the course of their lives and the lives around them.
What I love best about my job is the metric by which we measure success. After years in the private sector and government, I wanted a change from measuring success solely by the bottom line. At the International Book Project, success means giving students the tools they need to achieve their dreams – books! When I see a photograph or video of a rural school, or even a school right here in our own backyard in Kentucky that has partnered with us, I am filled with joy and pride knowing that our work contributed to those students’ educations and is helping to foster a love of learning in them. I believe that books change lives, and I get to act every day to carry out a positive change in the world.
What is the best way for our Mixed-Up Files readers to contribute?
Jennifer Duddy Gill writes children’s books that she hopes will change lives or at least brighten a child’s day.