On a grey Tuesday afternoon, Shanna Sussens and Matt Gonzalez load more than a dozen oversized bags, filled with books, into the back of Gonzalez’s Jeep.
Gonzalez, who stands head and shoulders above Sussens, was recruited as “the muscle” to lug the collection. Books, in aggregate, get very heavy very quickly.
The 1,800 books donated by the Monroe Free Library will go to join the roughly 4,500 that Sussens has already collected on behalf of Eco Children, a non-profit organization based in Hoedspruit, South Africa, that builds schools and libraries in disadvantaged communities.
“I’ve basically taken over my parents’ garage,” Sussens said, sizing up the bags that Monroe Free Library staff have set out for her and Gonzalez.
To make room for new acquisitions, all libraries must routinely weed their holdings by removing items that have not circulated for some years or volumes which no longer meet the needs of the community. In addition to these books, MFL was also flush with donations from the previous year — donations that are normally earmarked to give away to children and teens during the large, collaborative Summer Reading Program held each year. However, the Covid-19 pandemic forced the 2020 SRP online and the books could not be distributed safely.
For both the library and for Sussens, adding these books to the Eco Children collection was win-win.
Gonzalez returns for another bag of books while Sussens discusses logistics with Melissa Quarles, Head of Children’s and Young Adult Services at Monroe Free Library.
“I’ve known him since preschool,” Sussens said after Gonzalez has left the room. “I can count on him. He’s the only on I still talk to from ‘way back when.’”
Sussens moved to South Africa at the end of 2014. There, she worked for the non-profit foundation Pride n’ Purpose, whose mission is to help disadvantaged communities living adjacent to the Sabi Sand Game Reserve in South Africa.
‘Volunteering is also a bit selfish’
Part of Sussens’ work involved speaking to the tourists who visited the game reserve, raising awareness (and funds) for the impoverished communities living just beyond the reserve’s boundaries.
Her work there helped to build schools, train teachers and to provide access to clean water.
Sussens returned to the United States in February, shortly before the pandemic brought the country to a halt. She had a lot of free time on her hands and turned to what she knew — helping others.
“Volunteering is also a bit selfish,” she said. “It just makes you feel so good.”
She linked up with Eco Children and started collecting books. She reached out to libraries, bookstores and to individuals on social media.
“You know those local selling and trading groups on Facebook? Well, I joined all of them.”
Her efforts paid off. Sussens now has 6,045 volumes ready to ship overseas. The books will go to populate two new libraries for primary schools in Bushbuckridge and Acornhoek in South Africa.
“The students at these school don’t pay to attend,” Sussens explained, “So everything depends on the local government which is already stretched very thin. Sometimes the kitchen areas or the classrooms are deteriorating in these school -so books are even lower on the list of priorities. There’s a gap between what the kids need and what is being provided.”