The only way to get books to some of the schools in remote villages of Africa is on the back of motorcycles. COURTESY LIBRARIES FOR KIDS

“Focus on the outcomes, not the obstacles.” This is the mantra of Bluffton resident Roy Austin, founder and chairman of Libraries For Kids, a local nonprofit organization that supplies books to schools in underdeveloped countries in Africa.

Libraries For Kids celebrates its second anniversary this month, as well as amazing progress they have accomplished.

Austin went on an African safari three years ago to see the magnificent animals. He wasn’t particularly interested in experiencing the culture or exploring the villages – until a visit to a school in Kenya.

The teacher explained that textbooks are shared – sometimes 20 to 30 students share one textbook – and the rural schools don’t have libraries. “The image in my mind was that the strongest kid controls the book,” Austin said.

He also saw that the children were eager to learn, friendly and smart. They had no electricity or internet and without books their education would be limited.

This stuck in Austin’s brain after he returned home, and he couldn’t let it go. So he founded Libraries For Kids.

Austin’s goal was to collect old encyclopedias and other books and send them to the rural school he had visited. He had a vision to broaden the educational opportunities for students in Africa, and two years later unbelievable milestones have been achieved.

The organization’s vision is to increase the ratio of students to textbooks from 30:1 to 1:1. By last September, Libraries For Kids had enough books to fill eight huge cargo containers. Each container contains 32,000 books to be delivered to 200 schools.

Austin said that eight containers will supply 1,600 libraries and impact 250,000 students. The goal for 2022 is to supply books to 6,700 rural schools in Kenya that will impact more than a million kids.

Austin did some research and discovered another program, Books for Africa, and decided to partner with them. Books for Africa takes care of the shipping for Libraries for Kids. The cargo containers are shipped one at a time because unpacking the container and delivering to rural villages is labor intensive, particularly because the only mode of transportation they can use to travel through the jungle is motorcycles.

Through the generosity of donors, Libraries For Kids was able to hire an operations coordinator named Frances Wanjiku. She had responded to a post made by Austin on Work.com to build a website.

Austin said she was so excited about the organization’s mission that she became their first volunteer. “We really needed a person on the ground that we could depend on,” Austin said, and they eventually hired her full-time.

Wanjiku can see firsthand the impact Libraries For Kids has made for the children in Kenya and, as someone who grew up there with such limited resources, she sees the dramatic changes that families now experience. 

“Before schools closed for the Easter holiday, one teacher from the 11 schools Libraries For Kids reached out to before the pandemic, called and asked if I could send them more books from the warehouse,” Wanjiku said. “The head teacher wanted to have more books to distribute to the students who wanted holiday assignments. Parents have also called asking if I have already set up a library at the warehouse where they can send their kids to read.”

An avid reader, Wanjiku is excited to get books to children. “I knew many would appreciate, I just didn’t expect the numbers to be as overwhelming! Teachers have reported having an easier time helping kids learn new words, thanks to the encyclopedias.”

Wanjiku is grateful for the work of Libraries for Kids, and recognizes the positive impact the work has had on students and teachers.

“The presence of the storybooks has challenged the children to want to read and practice speaking English,” she said. “Teachers are happy to open the school library once every week for the students to borrow different books during the lockdown. Those in grades 6 to 8 visit frequently and in large numbers. They also hold study groups at schools whenever possible. …  Libraries for Kids is truly God-sent.”

The books that are shipped are supplemental reading to enhance the schools’ curriculum, to do research and to read for pleasure. Funds are also now available to provide textbooks. The schools can order textbooks through Wanjiku to ensure that they get to the schools.

Libraries For Kids will be expanding its operations to Rwanda and Uganda soon, and a former student of Austin’s wife, a college professor, will serve as the coordinator. “He’s very excited to be a part of our mission,” Austin said.

The man is originally from Rwanda and values education and the opportunity to expand opportunities for learning.

“There have been amazing, unexpected consequences of supplying libraries to such poor schools,” Austin said. “The teachers themselves are using supplemental reading materials for their own learning and class assignments. And parents are now coming into the schools to read after hours.”

Libraries For Kids is changing the world one mind at a time. “God keeps opening doors and we keep walking through them,” Austin said.

For more information, visit libraries4kids.com.

Edwina Hoyle is a freelance writer in Bluffton.