Sometime soon, an array of teenagers in Africa, with lovingly packed boxes of K-5 math textbooks hoisted on their shoulders, will complete the final steps of a journey that started with a Harker student’s efforts to blend sustainability with service to the world’s poor.
Driven to find ways to propel positive change, rising senior Sachi Bajaj started a nonprofit entity called Me2U Foundation last year focused on reclaiming various items for use abroad, setting in motion of a chain of events that, among other things, diverted nearly 1,000 used textbooks from the waste stream for the use of mostly rural libraries serving an estimated 45,000 African children.
“I want to show people that anyone can do this, even if you are just in high school like I am,” said Bajaj. “We truly can make a difference, and the results are right in front of us. It is unbelievable to think that 700 books, which possibly could have reached the landfills, went to children who do not have sufficient resources to even learn, something that myself and others may take for granted.”
The difficulty of transporting learning resources to remote communities disadvantaged by lack of access to textbooks was overcome in large part by The Harker School’s contribution of funds to finance the shipping of the books, first to New Orleans and then most likely to Malawi, but possibly instead to Ghana, depending upon available space on a July trans-Atlantic container ship. More than 200 additional textbooks were sent free of charge to Thrift Books, a socially conscious, for-profit organization that re-sells books on the secondary market.
Harker library director Lauri Vaughan, who has overseen other efforts to connect books with readers, proclaimed the arrangement “a win for the environment and for all those readers who will use these books to learn valuable skills.”
Claire Hubel, container manager for The African Library Project, designated Bajaj, Me2U and The Harker School global literacy champions, noting that the Bajaj was “absolutely instrumental in making all this happen.”
Bajaj’s foundation got its start in 2019 as a project aiming to reduce waste and share resources such as clothing, shoes and toys, then grew this year to focus on books, 320 million of which are estimated to be wasted annually.
“Over the course of five months, I worked very closely with Ms. Vaughan to make sure that these books would be redirected from landfills to the underprivileged in a sustainable manner,” Bajaj said. ” I would send lists and lists of updates to Ms. Vaughan about possible organizations, but many of them simply would not work out. At this time, my organization did not have sufficient funding to ship over this many textbooks.”
Finding the African Library Project in May revived Bajaj’s hope that the books would find a proper home after all. The African Library Project distributes books to libraries across Malawi and six other countries in Africa. It does so from the Port of New Orleans, however, so the not so small matter of transporting the jumbo load of elementary education materials remained a hurdle. Harker stepped in with $960 to finance the books’ voyage.
Harker sustainability czar Greg Lawson called the project “a remarkable undertaking by Sachi and Lauri,” adding, “It is noteworthy that this undertaking began as Sachi’s brainchild, but that Lauri saw the vision and helped her do the work within the administration of the school to bring this to fruition. Hopefully these texts will land in the lap of a student whose curiosity will be piqued and will endeavor to learn and grow because of this exposure. These books may become ‘a gift that keeps on givin’’ and if they do, all the effort will be worthwhile – and that’s not even taking into account the sustainability element here!”
Bajaj distinguished herself through her perseverance amid the numerous obstacles attending such enterprises, Vaughan said. “Where others have good ideas, but struggle to implement them, Sachi stayed with this and I am so happy with how it is turning out.”
Hubel, who brought her daughter to campus to help Vaughan pack the volumes, worked with partners in Malawi to plan distribution of the gently used tomes to 45 libraries in the landlocked southeast African nation, where literacy has been on the decline, currently falling below 70 percent for males and at just 55 percent for females.
“There is a very small chance that this collection of math books may be held until our Ghana container (which will be shipping in the fall) on the off-chance that the Malawi container is full,” Hubel said. “The container is going to be very full, and these books may be loaded last, since they represent a supplement for many schools, and we don’t want to send these at the expense of a single school getting their full library.”
Regardless of which destination the books reach, they form a foundation of hope that acquisition of STEM skills can help lift poor children from poverty, enabling them to contribute to the development of their homeland.
“Our procedure is to fill a shipping container for each country we are working with, and the container to Malawi will already be carrying 60 libraries of 1,000 books each,” Hubel said. “Luckily we have just started adding STEM supplements to many of the libraries that we send to, so we decided that this donation would comprise a one box STEM supplement to each of the 45 primary grade schools in this container. In order to qualify for a library from the African Library Project, a school has to fill out an application demonstrating its need. Most of the schools we work with are in rural communities, and many do not have any books at all. Each box of textbooks that we packed at Harker was sorted to contain a full, leveled math curriculum from K-5th (or 6th) grade. As such, each box will be a valuable resource for the school receiving it, and will likely be used by teachers in support of their math instruction.
“The books that Harker donated so generously were almost new and very well-made. They have many years of use in them, in the careful hands that will receive them. These books will be used by teachers in 45 schools, reaching 45,377 students in all … and will then be used by each incoming grade as well. Using books this way will touch an immense number of lives!”