This year I had the opportunity to help a group of sixth graders elevate awareness in their community—as well as within themselves—about the ongoing crisis in Africa’s South Sudan and help my students raise funds to provide a group of South Sudanese students with school lunches and textbooks. It all started with a book club.
At the start of the 2013-2014 school year, I launched a book club for students in my middle school—Seneca Ridge Middle School in Sterling, Virginia—with the goal of introducing students to a variety of literature genres.
In October, we read and discussed the inspirational A Long Walk to Water (Houghton Mifflin, 2010), by Linda Sue Park based on a true story. The story follows Salva Dut, one of thousands of orphans and refugees from the Sudanese Civil War referred to as the “Lost Boys of Sudan.” Separated from his family during the Second Sudanese Civil War (1985-2005), Salva traveled hundreds of miles by foot, seeking refuge from violence and starvation. Despite insurmountable adversity, Salva led over 150 Lost Boys to relative safety in Kenya where they settled in a refugee camp. Eventually, Salva emigrated to America, where he started Water for South Sudan, a nonprofit organization that drills wells to bring clean water access to the villages of South Sudan. During one of our book club meetings, we visited Water for South Sudan’s website and watched videos of how they are transforming lives in South Sudan.
Through reading the book and the research related to the book, my students were shocked to learn of the living conditions in Sudan. This was the first time they had learned of the Sudanese Civil War, the Lost Boys, and that many people in South Sudan don’t have basic necessities such as clean water access and everyday food. My students said they wanted to help and decided to enter a competition called Step Up Loudoun, a local Virginia youth competition that celebrates middle and high school students for taking action to address issues in the community.
Eager to help out, the Step Up Loudoun organizers connected us with a nonprofit based out of Washington, D.C. called Sudan Sunrise. Sudan Sunrise is a nonprofit organization that works with people of diverse religious and tribal backgrounds to facilitate peaceful reconciliation, education, and community building in South Sudan.
In November, Heather Flor, the director of advancement at Sudan Sunrise, met with our book club. Heather provided the background and history about the current humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, showing us pictures and videos from her recent trip to the country, and presented us with a variety of active projects we could support.
We decided to focus our fundraising efforts on providing free school lunches and shipping donated textbooks to South Sudanese students. A mere eight cents could purchase a student lunch, and one dollar could ship a textbook. We called our group “Feed and Read Sudan,” and we got to work.
Over the next few months, my sixth graders worked to create a blog “Feed and Read for Sudan,” a Facebook page, and a “Feed and Read for Sudan”-dedicated Gmail account. They used computer literacy skills, like using Microsoft Office tools, in order to publish flyers and posters to promote the fundraising project. They built a secure lockbox to collect cash donations and worked with Sudan Sunrise to set up an online donation form. We worked with Sudan Sunrise to create an online presentation using prezi.com to raise awareness amongst their classmates about the past and ongoing crisis in Sudan and educate them on the types of library materials and resources available to help broaden their global awareness. The “Feed and Read Sudan” group and Sudan Sunrise co-presented the online presentation to other sixth grade students during their study hall period.
Meanwhile, conditions in South Sudan deteriorated when a conflict between the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar resulted in violence, chaos, internal displacement, and widespread hunger in December 2013.
As the conflict situation unfolded across the ocean, we, at Seneca Ridge Middle School, were all reminded of the need to spread awareness and help ease the suffering of the South Sudanese people.
In late February, Heather contacted me to let me know that Sudan Sunrise was hosting Jacob Atem, a former-Lost Boy and Sudanese-American leader and founder of the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization. Jacob was traveling to Northern Virginia to lobby for U.S. aid for South Sudan in front of Congress. He was arriving in less than two weeks, and Heather wanted to see if there would be an opportunity for him to speak at our school.
We immediately reserved the school auditorium for a free community discussion led by “Feed and Read” featuring Jacob. The school administrators and our Parent Teacher Organization got behind the project, and we opened the event up to the entire school district. We advertised through our school newsletter and website. Sudan Sunrise lent their help by sending out a press release using their newsletter, Facebook page, and Twitter. Local newspapers promoted the event.
The event in early March of this year was incredible. Hundreds of community members filled the auditorium to listen to Jacob present his inspiring story of overcoming the odds. Our “Feed and Read” group led a question and answer session in front of the crowd.
As a result of this event and fundraising efforts, “Feed and Read Sudan” raised over $1,200.00—or the equivalent of 15,000 student meals—for Sudan Sunrise. As a bonus, on April 1 our students competed in the Step Up Loudoun competition and won the award for “Biggest Global Impact.”
The effort put forth by my students involved in this project is testament to how school libraries and librarians can help today’s students become active participants in our global society and how librarians can create their own local “Feed and Read” groups connecting students to global literature and doing good works in the world. As librarians, we have the unique positioning and opportunity to teach students how to use 21st-century skills to make a difference. School libraries are places where young people can become global leaders, and make positive contributions to the world.
For more information about the Manute Bol primary school that was featured in “Feed and Read Sudan’s” efforts, watch this Youtube video for a highlight of the school’s accomplishments in 2013.
Lauren McBride is a school librarian at Seneca Ridge Middle School in Sterling, Virginia of the Loudoun County Public School District. She has an MSLIS from the Pratt Institute (NY) and is a certified and licensed library media specialist