In the winter of 2018, Ari Uhlin of Mattapoisett was casting about trying to decide what service project her family might take on for the holiday season. The Uhlins had already done all the common, traditional ways to give, but this year Ari wanted to do something different.
One day, Uhlin was speaking to her friend, Megan McMurrin, an employee of the U.S. State Department, living near an impoverished area known as Kansanga within the city of Kampala, Uganda. McMurrin spoke of the tremendous need the Ugandan children have for books – there simply weren’t any at their school or in their homes.
McMurrin told Uhlin she hoped to find a way to give the students of the Kansanga Parents Primary School a library. And while that seed of an idea was trying to find its roots, another seed was planted. Uhlin started wondering if maybe Mattapoisett families would be willing to donate books to the Ugandan children.
“I thought, what if we could give each child one book – a book they could own,” Uhlin said. As the two friends said goodbye, neither of them could have anticipated what was to come.
McMurrin had told Uhlin that there were about 270 children ranging from kindergarten-age to seventh grade attending the Kansanga Parent Primary School, and the school is funded solely by the tuitions paid by the families whose children attend the school. If a parent cannot pay the fees, the child is not permitted to attend the school.
Over those days following that conversation, Uhlin’s idea persisted – what if her family could give each child one book to take home, to own?
Uhlin is by nature a self-proclaimed “behind-the-scene” person; however, this time, she was able to set aside her instincts. She, along with her eleven-year old son, Kai, approached Kai’s fifth grade teacher Ms. Casi and wondered if perhaps Kai’s classmates would want to participate.
Ms. Casi’s enthusiasm was instantaneous. Yes, the children could each bring in one book to give to a student in Uganda. But when the Old Hammondtown School (OHS) Principal Rose Bowman heard about the plan, it grew even bigger. Bowman thought it would be a wonderful project for the entire school.
As the holiday season came and went, the project quietly continued to blossom until February when OHS used its Valentine’s Day celebration as the springboard for the book sharing plan. Mattapoisett families whose children attend OHS didn’t disappoint – they donated 1,500 used children’s books.
But wait! There were indeed loads of colorful, wonderful, playful children’s picture books, but included in the lot were the retired Scholastic School set editions donated from Center School under the guidance of Mr. Tavares. There was even the donation of the complete Harry Potter series.
As the Uhlins grappled with the logistics involved with such a large inventory of printed materials – not to mention the realities of shipping heavy cartons across the globe – McMurrin and Uhlin remained sensitive regarding the message they were sending these American students.
“We didn’t want them to feel pity for the kids in Uganda,” Uhlin said; rather, they wanted the message be one of friendship and sharing versus the less poignant “giving to the poor.”
To solve this issue, McMurrin started planning a PowerPoint presentation to include a short video of the students enjoying the donated books they would soon receive from Mattapoisett.
The process of preparing the books for shipment took on an industrial effort as Kai and his little sister, Kirra, examined each book to ensure it was in good condition. When asked if she found any books that could not be used, Kirra shouted with joy, “Hardly any!” The effort became almost Herculean. The Uhlins shipped eight boxes chock full of books, postage-paid from money OHS rounded up from a small fundraiser held at the school. Shipping just one single carton ranged from $25 to $30; the postage for an additional four cartons was courtesy of the Uhlins.
The first boxes shipped also contained letters from the Mattapoisett students who also made pipe cleaner figures, which they modeled after wire figures they had seen made by the Ugandan kids.
After receiving the cartons, McMurrin followed-up with the presentation and video she created for the students back in Mattapoisett. She captured images of the Ugandan students during a regular school day as they studied English, the primary language used in the school. The video showed the children reciting their lessons, doing chores before schools, and also just being kids at play.
Uhlin said that although English is the primary language taught and spoken in the classroom, local culture is not set aside. In the video, the children are seen in local traditional dress performing traditional songs and dance.
“The children are happy,” Uhlin said, in spite of not possessing what the average Mattapoisett student would consider essential material goods.
In the video screened in Kai’s classroom, the Ugandan students are shown translating simple terms such as “hello”, “goodbye”, and “thank you” from their native language to English. They also asked the Mattapoisett kids questions like, “What is your climate like?” and “What kind of foods do you eat?” – questions to be answered when the Mattapoisett students write back.
In a follow-up e-mail, McMurrin wrote of the amazing contribution the Mattapoisett families made that resulted in global outreach.
“I was amazed and thankful for the support of the school,” McMurrin wrote. “These children would have had absolutely no access to books like these throughout their entire education and beyond.”
McMurrin continued, adding that it was a unique opportunity for the Ugandan students to be exposed to such a variety of children’s literature.
“Each school child was able to take a book home. … [F]or most of them, it will be the first and most likely only book in their household.”
“It was way better than I ever anticipated,” said Uhlin reflecting of the project.
After the challenges Uhlin faced in shipping the remaining cartons to Uganda, McMurrin then faced the even larger challenge of trying to build a structure that can act as a secure location for the remaining books to be shipped – a little library.
If you are interested in learning more about the Ugandan book project, you may contact Ari Uhlin at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Megan McMurrin at email@example.com.
By Marilou Newell