Cool Girl: Shannon, 17, is Changing Lives in Tanzania

New Jersey's Shannon McNamara, 17, has always been an active reader. When she heard about the "book famine" in Africa, she decided to help. She founded Shannon's After-school Reading Exchange (SHARE) in 2008, and so far, SHARE has created four school libraries in Tanzania with over 23,000 children's books, textbooks and dictionaries -- plus tons of school supplies -- for girls who are eager to learn. We had to talk to this world-changer.

I Heart Daily: What inspired you to start SHARE? Shannon McNamara: My family was planning a service trip to Tanzania, and I heard about the book famine. I reached out to Smart Baitani, a Tanzanian who was organizing our trip, and he suggested that addressing the gender inequalities that exist in rural Africa would be a worthy project. Girls who attend primary school in Tanzania struggle to become literate. While boys are encouraged to study or play, girls are expected to perform household tasks, such as collecting water, planting beans, washing clothes in the streams, and caring for their siblings instead of pursuing their education. I think this is unfair and without education, girls’ only option is to marry early and this bleak life continues. My determination to help these girls led to SHARE.

IHD: It's such a big problem -- where did you start? SM: I put out hundreds of flyers requesting donation of children’s books, school supplies, and used laptop computers. My friends and I collected, labeled, sorted and boxed 500 pounds of learning materials. My family brought all of this with us on the plane to Tanzania in July 2008.

IHD: Once you got there, what was the condition of the schools? SM: A derelict room was made available by Kiteyagwa Primary, a school with no electricity, no running water, and no books. I saw firsthand students walking miles to school in bare feet, not eating the entire day until they returned home, and sitting four to one desk. School supplies are so limited that they will break a pencil into three parts to share. Our volunteer group helped me sand, paint, repair, and equip the SHARE room. I hired local carpenters to build a 6X6 foot bookshelf, fit glass into the windows, install a secure door, and make signs.

IHD: How did your first class go? SM: With the help of Madam Tabitha, now a SHARE teacher, I taught the first program to 23 bright girls. I introduced the rules for handling texts because the girls have never seen so many books in their life. The SHARE girls were so motivated, that even after two hours of instruction they rejected an offer of a play break! Before I left to come back home, Miss Justina, the headmistress of the school, locked eyes with me and said, “don’t forget us.” Those three words haunt me and motivate me to keep SHARE going.

IHD: How can other people help? SM: Once girls in America hear about challenging life is for girls their age in Africa, they just want to help. Fundraising is the best way to help because SHARE is launching a SHARE Scholars program where we support girls through sponsorships. Learn how to start a SHARE club and get fundraising ideas at shareinafrica.org.