New Jersey Teen Creates Book Program for African Girls

Filed under: In The News, Amazing Kids

Shannon McNamara book program

Shannon McNamara, back row, far right, stands with some of the original 2008 SHARE girls from the Kiteyagwa Primary School in Bukoba, Tanzania, East Africa. Credit: Megan McNamara

Shannon McNamara's passion for books is being felt from New Jersey to Africa.

For several summers, McNamara, 17, and her family have volunteered to teach English to primary school children in Costa Rica, Guatemala, China and Peru. So, by the time McNamara arrived in Tanzania in 2008, volunteering in a foreign country was nothing new.

But the trip to East Africa coincided with McNamara's need to focus on earning a Girl Scout Gold Award, which encourages the development of a project that empowers others, creates change and fulfills a need in a community.

And that's when the Basking Ridge, N.J., teen decided to develop a reading program in Tanzania where she's able to spread her love of books and learning.

While conducting research for the trip and learning more about Tanzania, the teen tells ParentDish she contacted Smart Baitani, founder of Community Solutions for Africa's Development (COSAD). The Minnesota-based nonprofit organization is focused on helping Tanzanians emerge from poverty "one community at a time."

Based on Baitani's suggestions and the requirements for the Girl Scout award, McNamara decided to focus on addressing gender inequalities that exist in the educational system in many villages. Generally, instead of supporting a girl's academic learning, a Tanzanian village encourages females to learn domestic skills. Boys, on the other hand, receive encouragement to play and study, she says.

Hoping to empower and inspire girls in Africa through education, Shannon's After-school Reading Exchange (SHARE) was born.

"I knew before I went down I was going to put it into place," McNamara says.

In July 2008, McNamara, along with her parents and siblings, arrived at the Kiteyagwa Primary in Tanzania with 500 pounds of books, supplies and used laptops donated by the family's community and friends. McNamara says she worked to convince Tanzanian mothers to allow their daughters to increase their academics while renovating and securing a room to create a library for the donations.

In its first year, SHARE kicked off with participation from 23 girls between the ages of 10 and 18. McNamara taught them how to treat the books and provided them with a safe place to improve their reading and writing skills after school.

Books are such a precious commodity in Tanzania, McNamara tells ParentDish by phone, that SHARE employs a guard for the library to ensure the safety of the educational materials. In order to prevent theft, no one may check out materials. Instead, girls may request the key to the library from a SHARE teacher, and then read inside the library.

"It is pretty crazy," McNamara says. "In some parts of Africa, they have never held a book in their hand. They have no books in the schools. When we went down, we had to put locks and bars to the library. Books are like gold."

SHARE's undertakings in Africa have been expanding and now encompass everything from reading classes to installing electricity to school renovations. Two new, ongoing campaigns include a pilot program for pen pals and SHARE Scholars, which will provide funds to help SHARE students continue their educations.

McNamara's parents, who are members of the organization's board, and her two siblings, also are involved with SHARE. Brendan, Shannon's 22-year-old brother, has created documentaries about SHARE and its students, and Megan, her 21-year-old sister, has taken countless photographs during the family's volunteer trips. McNamara's friends also have rallied around the organization.

"They have been a huge help, especially the pen pal program," McNamara says. "Everybody really wants to help if given the chance."

According to its website, SHARE has opened four school libraries in Tanzania and one school library in Zanzibar since 2008. The organization serves 3,000 students -- boys and girls -- who may use the library books during school hours. There are 610 girls taking part in the various SHARE programs, and nearly 1,000 New Jersey students are involved in assisting the organization.

McNamara keeps busy getting the word out about SHARE through speaking engagements or presentations, highlighting awareness of the girls' educational needs and encouraging book drives and fundraising efforts.

The teen has traveled to Tanzania each summer since 2008, and she plans to return in 2011 after she finishes her senior year of high school. She says she enjoys seeing the changes in the students.

"It's always very fun," she tells ParentDish. "The first year, the girls were mostly seen, not heard. They spoke softly. I thought, am I intimidating? Am I doing something wrong? Once they have been in the SHARE program for a year, one year has totally changed their confidence. They laugh, talk and ask questions. It is amazing what one year of strong education can do for someone's confidence."

McNamara is garnering national and international attention for her efforts and recently accepted a United Nations Youth Achievement Recognition award and threw out the ceremonial coin toss before a New York Red Bulls and Los Angeles Galaxy soccer match.

Besides the accolades, McNamara says she sees a "ripple effect" in her work.

"If you educate a boy, you educate an individual," she says, repeating a message she says she has heard. "If you educate a girl, you educate a community. You are lifting a whole community up by investing in a girl's education."

McNamara has plans to attend college and keep SHARE going.

"I hope to study abroad in Africa," she says. "I hope to major in nonprofits and make SHARE a full-time job. SHARE is going to follow with me as I get older."

Related: U.S. Boy Returns From Outreach Visit to North Korea


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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.