Fulbright scholar from Monroe is on a mission to restore a South African high school's library

| 22 Feb 2012 | 05:06

Kerry Kennedy hopes to have at least 2,000 books donated to this cause, By Nancy Kriz MONROE - It’s just about a month until The Book Garden, the gently used book shop operated by the Friends of the Monroe Free Library, opens for the season, but on Wednesday, a 22-year-old Monroe woman -who is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship - was selecting books destined for a high school in South Africa. Kerry Kennedy, a grant recipient of one of the world’s most prestigious awards programs, was given special access to the store to choose the books she’d like and which shop officials are donating to her as part of her Fulbright work to restore and upgrade a library at Walmer High School in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. The high school is located in one of the area’s most poverty-stricken townships and is one of the schools where the Fulbright program sends its grant recipients. Many residents suffer from HIV/AIDS. It’s an area known for crime and unemployment. For the next nine months, Kennedy and a colleague will serve as English teaching assistants. And while there, the restoration of the library becomes their equally important assignment. Kennedy looked at books available at The Book Garden covering 5th through 12th grade reading levels because of the diversity of reading abilities of Walmer’s students. Officials were happy to help her cause because the book shop consistently receives a tremendous amount of donations - so much so that its back rooms are overstocked with boxes of books. And along with this week’s donations from The Book Garden, Kennedy has launched a book drive at Monroe-Woodbury High School and the Middle School to solicit “gently read” books - and even outdated textbooks - which are no longer needed from students and the schools. Library will be 'hub’ of the school Her goal is have at least 2,000 donated books that will serve as the new foundation for the Walmer library, covering a broad range of subject matter while reinforcing the value of how books can open up a world of knowledge and potential to those who are disadvantaged. “I think it’s important for (book donors) to be aware that they have the resources to make a difference that doesn’t exist in other places,” said Kennedy, who will graduate in 2012 from the graduate program of the Columbia University Teacher’s College. “There is a global connection to working on a project like this. You can be aware of what’s going on beyond the small bubble of your everyday life.” The current library room is in shambles from lack of funds, and part of Kennedy’s task will be to create an electronic catalog system, secure computers for Internet use by students and create an environment conducive to recognizing the power of books. “The principal (at Walmer) wants this library to be 'the hub’ of the school,” Kennedy said, who already has 150 new books donated from Scholastic. Currently, Walmer’s library consists of only a small building with working electricity and a handful of dictionaries. Before phasing out the Apartheid government, Walmer Township in Port Elizabeth had no high school. Created in 2003, it serves a 1,400 student population with a school fee of 100 South African rands - or about $10 per year - which students cannot afford to pay. Return to South Africa Kennedy is no stranger to living in South Africa as she attended the University of Cape Town through an exchange program while attending undergraduate school at Boston College. There, Kennedy said, she became involved with a university club which volunteered at area schools and orphanages. She eventually volunteered to teach at an after-school program. “It took a lot for me to prove to them (students) that I cared about and respected their education,” she said. “It was not easy, by any means.” Studying abroad inspired Kennedy to someday return to South Africa and continue the work she was doing as an undergraduate. At Boston College, a professor suggested Kennedy would be a perfect candidate for the Fulbright program and encouraged her to apply. Last April, she was notified she was accepted. “There were a lot of details at orientation,” she said. “I was put in touch with the woman who coordinates the Fulbright students going to South Africa. She placed us where our talents would be best used. Usually they’re on the university level. But for me, she compromised because she knew I had an elementary education background and found an assignment where I could be most useful. What’s great about the Fulbright program is that it gives students a lot of liberties to take their ideas and run with them.” Same hopes, same dreams Kennedy expects to leave for South Africa in the upcoming weeks and will be there until October. In the meantime, she remains hopeful to find 2,000 books that can put to good use at Walmer. She has received small grants to cover shipping costs, but welcomed monetary donations to help with those efforts. Her experiences with South African students have reinforced that students worldwide are very much alike, noting in her letter soliciting book donations that “reading is fundamental to a person’s success in life and this library restoration project is essential for the learners at Walmer to reach their maximum potential. The availability of international literature and multi-cultural texts can also help to spark global curiosity and awareness in students, and to combat xenophobic perspectives.” And, that’s not all. “These children have the same kind of need to do well in exams, just as children here,” said Kennedy, while putting together a donation box at the high school’s library on Wednesday afternoon. “They want to make a difference in the world, just like students here. And their hopes and dreams are the same, just like anyone here and in the world.”

Can you help?
If you have “gently read” books fitting a 5th to 12th grade reading level and covering all topics and genres that you no longer need, Monroe resident and Fulbright Scholar Kerry Kennedy will take them and put them to good use at Walmer High School in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. To contact Kennedy call 325-4873; or e-mail her at kennedyk14@gmail.com