Shannon McNamara Started Her Own Reading Programâ€¦in Africa!
April's Activist of the Month is Shannon McNamara, a fifteen year old from New Jersey. With the support of her parents and community, Shannon opened an after-school reading program for girls in Tanzania, Africa in July 2008. Shannon's program is known as SHARE, "Shannon's After-School Reading Exchange." Besides from promoting children's literacy, Shannon is a Girl Scout who loves to travel with her family. We got to speak with Shannon about her activism, her travels, her favorite books, and how other girls can be activists, too!
Teen Voices: How did you come up with the idea for SHARE?
Shannon: There's this man, Smart Baitani [who runs the COSAD organization], he was the main guy that I emailed before going to Africa, and he brought up the different ideas. And one of the them was better education for the school that he had gone to when he was a kid [the Kiteyagwa Primary School]. He helped a lot with telling us what they needed.
TV: What inspired you to work on children's literacy?
Shannon: Well, the main thing is that I've always loved reading. Ever since I was a kid, I've been reading and I've loved books. That's why I really wanted to start a whole program about giving books for African girls.
TV: How often are the girls actually at SHARE?
Shannon: It's a daily thing, although not on the weekends.
TV: What did you do after you had the idea?
Shannon: Well, I had a ton of help from my parents. We did it for my Gold Award [for Girl Scouts] and they really break it down for you. First I had to get my idea down for my proposal and figure out my main goal for this project. Then, I actually had over 100 hours of work before I even got on the plane to go to Tanzania. There were all these letters [requesting donations] to my neighbors, family and friends, which I dropped off in their mailboxes. They were so extremely generous. We got piles of books from them; the first shipment we brought like 1,200 books or so. Then we had to label the books, put them in specific boxes. Once we got down there, it was kind of hard to set up because it was in a really small town. We had to get bookshelves custom-made by a carpenter because they don't make them--they don't have enough books that people would need to buy a shelf! The school was really generous; they donated a whole room to us. We also had a lot of help from the volunteers in the GCN, the Global Citizens Network [the volunteer organization Shannon & her family traveled with]. We couldn't have done it without them. They helped paint, sand the walls, put the doors and windows in. Then we had to actually get it going, have the girls come.
TV: What was the biggest challenge you faced in starting SHARE?
Shannon: The biggest problem was getting the parents to agree to let their girls stay after school. They wanted them to cook and clean and didn't really understand the importance of girls' education. We had to try to convince them. We had help from the principal, Ms. Justina, to translate. But a lot of the parents who came were the mothers, and they understood the society and how girls get less chances. So a lot of them ended up agreeing that the education was worth it in the long run.
TV: Could you tell us about your first time in Africa? Did anything surprise you?
Shannon: The first thing was the trip it took to get there: we had to fly to Denmark first, then we flew to Uganda, then Rwanda. Then, there was a 6 hour bus ride over to Bukoba in Tanzania. Most people might get culture shock but we've done a lot of international volunteering. But I mean, some Africans had never seen a white person before, so sometimes we got creepy looks.
TV: I've read that you're going to open another SHARE program...
Shannon: Yeah, we're actually opening two more branches. My mom and our neighbor are going down in April. I'm going back this summer and we'll expand then. Who knows what it is going to grow into, but right now we're just excited to give more.
TV: Is there anyone specific who takes care of the program when you're not there?
Shannon: Well, the principle of the school, Ms. Justina, is really into it and really helpful.
TV: What's your favorite book or author?
Shannon: I love J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potters. I really like Stephanie Meyer too.
TV: Do you have any advice to other girls about making a difference, abroad or at home?
Shannon: It's easier than you think. You could start a book drive or do fundraising at your school or in your neighborhood. I'm going to have one here in New Jersey. People wanted to help any way they could. The best thing you can do is spread awareness, and get everyone involved.
To learn more about Shannon's SHARE program, and about other organizations helping people in Tanzania and all over the world, visit:
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