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This is not your typical "helping Africa" story. No Sally Struthers infomercial. No pleas from Bono (though if you want that, here you go!).
Not to say that celebrities aren't doing fantastic work in Africa, but this story takes place out of the spotlight. It's about Deb McNally, a mother and wife from Wisconsin. She spent the majority of the last 20 years raising and educating her two sons. She home-schooled them both through 8th grade, and then they went off to high school. Finding herself alone in her home during the day, she realized something was missing.
"When my youngest went off to high school, I found myself without the need to teach, but still a great desire to teach," she said. "I decided to get creative and see if there was a way to combine my love of teaching and travel and I started looking around for volunteer opportunities."
She discovered Global Volunteers, an organization that connects individuals with volunteer opportunities around the world, where they can work with communities, provide health care, take care of children, or an assortment of other tasks. When Deb saw a photo of children in Senchi Ferry, a village in Ghana, making her decision was easy. She decided to spend two weeks there with Global Volunteers, teaching children English. That was in April 2007.
"I went for two weeks, but I never imagined that my life would be turned around by that first experience," she told me. "The kids just came in droves -- they would walk a mile and a half to two miles just to have an opportunity to be taught."
Deb describes it as a life-changing experience. The students, she says, were so hungry for knowledge, and had such aspirations: helping solve the AIDS problem, becoming a doctor, becoming a community leader. She saw the potential in these children, but was shocked at the lack of books there were in Senchi Ferry. Before she left, she was approached by a young student named Emmanuel.
"He gave me a big hug and said, 'Madame Deb, if there's any way you could send me one book to achieve my dream of becoming a doctor, I would be forever grateful to you.' I was speechless. I got on the plane and I cried."
The lack of books in Senchi Ferry, and the eagerness of the children there to learn, stayed in her mind for months. She returned to Ghana six months later with a suitcase full of picture books -- and told Global Volunteers and the village elders of her proposal. She wanted to build a library so that all children in the village had access to knowledge.
She started fundraising in January 2008 and within months the library was under construction.
Despite her dedication, this was still a very new experience for Deb. She was aware of the challenges, but made a promise to the villagers of Senchi Ferry.
"I said I don't now how long this will take," she said. "I asked them to be patient and to trust me and I gave them my word that I would do it no matter how long it takes."
Today, the library is almost complete. Based on Deb's tireless efforts, she's raised $58,000, exceeding her original goal of $25,000. All the books have arrived -- all that's left is to finalize the furniture and finish construction on bookshelves and book bins. The pro
ject has now, however, become about more than just a library.
Additional funds raised will go into a scholarship fund to help many of the children in this village go to high school. Though 95% of Senchi Ferry's children attend elementary school, only 20% of them make it on to high school (which is too expensive for many of their families).
She still seems amazed that such a seemingly simple trip could have so deeply changed her life.
"One of the things I've learned at such a deep level is that people are people," she said. "We here have so much materialistically, and the people that I've met in Africa are some of the happiest, most spiritually-grounded, joyful and welcoming people I've ever met in my entire life. They have nothing materialistically, but they will give you everything."
Deb is traveling to Ghana again on May 13 to personally oversee the final stage of the library's construction. Her sons are joining her -- the first time they'll have visited the village. She hopes that it won't be the last.
"I just think that if everyone could experience the love and acceptance that I have, I think the world would be changed."
To make a donation to the Senchi Ferry Library Project, visit Global Volunteers and select "Deb McNally Senchi Ferry Library Fund" as the designation for your donation (it's about 2/3 down the page).