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Roy Austin’s Libraries for Kids


Story by Carolyn Males

The five-week trip had been the dream of a lifetime for Bluffton’s Roy Austin, and he’d done it all. He’d seen the Big Five: elephants, rhinos, leopards and lions from safari trucks in Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana and Zambia, and spotted Cape Buffalo in Zimbabwe. And he’d bargained in open-air markets and visited Nairobi shanty towns and tribal villages.

But along with the photographs and memories, much to his surprise he came away with a mission –– a mission that would need to be fulfilled over long distances under daunting circumstances.

It all started on a day in September 2018 when he’d crossed the threshold of Amboseli School, in a rural Maasai village, and witnessed a brief exchange between a visitor and a teacher who would jolt him out of retirement. Three years later it would impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of children across the entire country.

The spark had been lit as his tour group stood in a cramped schoolroom with rows of kids huddled on benches built of 2x4s. Someone had asked, “Do you have a library?” The teacher had responded with a big smile. “No, but we would love to have one.”

From that moment on for the rest of his trip and then back home in Bluffton, Austin had replayed the scene in his head. The Maasai, he’d learned, had changed their nomadic way of life so that their children could be educated. Instead of moving entire families from area to area as they sought out pastures for their cattle, they had established a village of mud huts. When in need of greener areas, now only the herders would go off for a few weeks so the children could stay and attend class.

Austin was a strong believer in education, and his wife, Sharron, had been a college professor. What if he could do something to help Kenyans establish school libraries in the poor communities? Sharron, who’d not been on the trip, had been delighted by the idea, and they talked strategy. The goal was to get as many books in the hands of as many kids as possible.

He did some research. While the national language is Kiswahili, classes are taught in English throughout the former British colony. As it was, Kenya only allocated $5.50 per rural student a year to cover books, supplies and other incidentals while parents paid tuition. Back-country schools lacked libraries, and textbooks were in short supply. Help from the government was not likely, so it would be up to Austin to figure out where to get the books and how to store, pack and ship them to that East African country. Once there, the problem would be transporting them to remote schools over dirt roads in places with little or no public transportation. In fact, in some cases the schools were so poor, the classroom might be under a tree with sheets serving as blackboards. Plus there was the thorny issue of getting the various local education entities onboard. On the surface it was a logistics nightmare.

However, Austin, who’d been an accountant in Tennessee, a CFO with D.J. Powers Company in Savannah and more recently a business coach, was a born problem-solver whose motto is: Focus on the objective, not the obstacle.

Meanwhile, when he mentioned his idea to friends and neighbors, skeptics responded with raised eyebrows and dismissive laughs. “If you send books, they’ll just get lost or stolen,” they scoffed. “Why not send tablets so the kids can read eBooks?” asked others. That of course, was unworkable in these areas which lack a reliable source of electricity, if any at all.

However, the idea caught fire with many people who began dropping off gently used storybooks, dictionaries, atlases, encyclopedias and wall charts. When the stacks of donations took over his garage, Austin found free space at a storage company and moved the stash there. Meanwhile, he set up a test run, sending one book at a time through the U.S. Post Office’s media mail. All three came through to their Kenyan recipients. While it was gratifying to see the system worked, Austin knew the cost would be prohibitive. Books are heavy, and a 35-pound box might cost $260 to ship to a local Kenyan post office.

Then two game changers appeared. The first was Kenyan Wanjiku Francis, who had answered his job listing for a web designer. Not only did she set up the website, but her firsthand knowledge of the country and her dedication to educating kids made for a strong partnership. Next Rick Harris, now on LFK’s board, discovered Books for Africa, a U.S.-based nonprofit that had been shipping books to the continent since 1988. Its 40-foot containers could hold up to 50,000 books, enough to establish libraries in anywhere from 200 to 400 schools. What’s more, the nonprofit already gathered publishers’ overruns and other donations, which meant Austin no longer had to deal with collecting books. Now he could concentrate on coming up with the $15,000 container fee, plus the costs of distribution once the container arrived in the port of Mombasa.

Meanwhile, Wanjiku proved to be a master of logistics, overseeing the books from their arrival in port to a warehouse in Kitui, 112 miles east of Nairobi, where they’d have to be stamped with the LFK logo and “not for sale” tag (as required by Kenya), sorted and repackaged for targeted schools. The trickiest part would be delivery to the outlying school by rental trucks, motorbikes and by foot. These multi-day trips might involve harrowing journeys over washed-out roads and through a gauntlet of hostile residents of bandits and hostile locals.

But the challenges have been worth it. So far LFK has sent nine containers of books to 3,021 rural schools. While the reporting system is informal, teachers point out test grades are higher, and adults are now seeking out classes in English and using library resources.

And the future? “Right now, it’s reaching all Kenya’s 6,700-plus rural schools,” said Austin. “But my long-term goal is that this concept can go anywhere where there are rural schools with little or no electricity, where electronic devices are not an option.” LL