Local teens collect thousands of books for Africa their bnai mitzvah projects

Tabby Block, 13, recently read “Born on a Blue Day,” the autobiography of autistic savant Daniel Tammet.

Jacob Ganz, 14, likes sports books and political books.

When these avid readers — both residents of San Francisco — turned to the Internet to search for meaningful projects for their bat and bar mitzvahs, both came across the African Library Project.


Boys in Lesotho, a country in southern Africa, enjoy Dr. Seuss’ “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.” photo/courtesy of african library project

The nonprofit program was developed by Chris Bradshaw and it’s operated out of her home in Portola Valley, a town in the hills above Los Altos.


Since its founding in 2005, the African Library Project has donated more than 653,000 used children’s books to help establish 609 libraries in Botswana, Cameroon, Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Jacob, an eighth grader at Brandeis Hillel Day School, contributed 6,000 books for libraries in Swaziland. Tabby, a seventh grader at the Hamlin School whose bat mitzvah will take place in June, is gathering up the last of 1,000 books and seeking donations to pay to ship them to Malawi.

“I recommend the African Library Project to anyone who wants to do a charity project,” says Jacob, whose family is affiliated with Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco. “It’s a fun way to give, and it’s definitely made Africa feel closer. As I sorted through the books, I’d see a favorite of mine and I was sure a kid in Africa would like the same book.”

Tabby, of Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco is thrilled with her accomplishment, too.

“I started with just my sister helping, but by now probably 50 people are involved,” she says. “This is the first thing I’ve ever done like this, and it happened all because I love to read.”

Bradshaw, 58, says the teens found out about the African Library Project the way most people do — online.

“We work with a lot of bar and bat mitzvahs, and I am so proud that we are providing leadership opportunities for American kids to have a global impact,” says Bradshaw, who has worked with schools and individuals in 30 states to complete book drives.

The goal for each drive is 1,000 books and $500 for shipping. The African Library Project works with established partners in African countries, including local non-government organizations, governments or the Peace Corps. Communities that hope to start libraries go through an application process, train teachers and then distribute the books when they arrive.

More than 100 book drives have taken place in the Bay Area in the nonprofit’s six years of existence, says Bradshaw. All participants follow guidelines on the organization’s website at www.african

libraryproject.org. A board of 20 volunteers helps Bradshaw operate the program, which she describes as “a full-time job — and then some.”

Bradshaw spent her junior year in college at Fourah Bay College in Sierra Leone and has traveled to 19 African countries. She has a B.A. in sociology and has worked as a professional YMCA camp director. She is married to Steve Levin, a leadership coach and organizational consultant. They have two children, 20 and 17.

In 2004, the family traveled to South Africa. While pony-trekking in Lesotho, Bradshaw asked the guide about local libraries.

“He said he thought there was one library in the country, in Maseru, the capital,” says Bradshaw. “I learned later that many villages wanted libraries, but didn’t know how to get books.”

Back home, Bradshaw started slowly, asking local home-schoolers for help collecting books. Then she approached Corte Madera Middle School, across the street from her home. The first five libraries were established in Lesotho. Initially, Bradshaw sorted, packed and shipped all the books herself.

“It didn’t take long to realize that I was going to have a limited impact unless I reached out,” she says. “When I did, I discovered just how much Americans want to help Africa in a tangible way.”

Jacob collected the 6,000 books in just five months. He started with a donation box at his school. His parents, Judy Tick and Steve Ganz, helped, too. Tick works for Kaiser Permanente and her husband is a real estate agent. Jacob’s brother, Eli, 9, also pitched in.

To pay shipping costs, Jacob donated money he received last year at his bar mitzvah. “I’m very proud of Jacob,” says Tick. “We spent many Sunday afternoons sorting through books.” The family has just started another book drive.

Tabby, the daughter of Karen and Jeff Block (they own Great Useful Stuff, an online home furnishings business) says the book drive was easy. “I signed up in February,” says Tabby. “When my sister, Sydney, and I went through our books, we had 300 we wanted to donate.” Next, Tabby printed and put up flyers in her neighborhood. Books started pouring in.

Tatiana Grossman, a sophomore at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, also is working on a book drive — another one. To date, she has helped establish 18 libraries in Botswana, and her efforts for the African Library Project helped her get nominated last year for the International Children’s Peace Prize; although she didn’t win, she was one of only four nominees worldwide, and it was the first-ever nomination for an American. She has been featured in j. twice in the past four years (www.bit.ly/cGWFZe and www.bit.ly/sjcr3).

Bradshaw notes that books the kids collect are the key to increasing literacy.

“Many African teachers conduct classes without books, and literacy is at an eighth-grade level where we work — even for teachers,” says Bradshaw. “The need is infinite.”

Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.