Not everyone’s post-graduation plans include relocating to a developing nation, let alone dedicating years to volunteering. For Spartans, it’s a common theme to be uncommon. Michigan State University has regularly been recognized as a top volunteer-producing college for the Peace Corps. With numerous graduates spreading around the world, their stories of service continually inspire others to think outside the box and live to help others. Jordan Keefe’s story is no exception.
Keefe arrived in Bonthe, Sierra Leone, in July 2017 to be an English teacher for middle school students. The small clay hut she called home had some getting used to at first.
With the help of her neighbors—most of whom are half her age—she learned how to cook without a stovetop, sweep without a broom, wash clothes with the muscles in her hands and arms, and sit and enjoy the present.
“It was hard to get used to not knowing how to do most things on my own and accept help from others,” Keefe said. “It was overwhelming never having a free second alone. I would get a knock on my door at 6:30 a.m., and from then on I would have visitors of all ages all day, until I collapse into my mosquito net-covered bed. When I first got to my new village, life was overwhelming, foreign and full of blessings.”
Keefe enjoyed her new way of life, but she quickly realized there was a lot of work to be done.
“After teaching for a half of a trimester, I could see that our biggest hurdle in the classroom was going to be learning, at a very basic level, how to read,” she said. “I didn’t expect this at a middle school, but about half of the students in my classes struggle with identifying the sounds of the letters in the alphabet.”
The students’ significantly varied levels of education proved their need for access to more educational materials. After evaluating the students in the community and listening to what the other teachers were hopeful for, Keefe knew building a library should be a priority for the village.
Forming the idea for a library was the easy part; however, getting books to Sierra Leone is no small feat, let alone building a place to put them all.
After connecting with her family back in the United States, the project started to come together.
“My dad, who is a teacher, did a book drive at his school, and my sisters, who are on student senate, set up a book drive at theirs,” Keefe said. “Of course, Facebook came in clutch and I got a lot of donations from friends, teachers, acquaintances, great aunts, etc. after posting about what we were trying to do in Sierra Leone. I am still overwhelmed with the giving hearts of all the people who donated. We ended up collecting over 4,000 books.”
While stateside family and friends collected books and donated funds for shipping, the students in Sierra Leone worked hard to build their own library. Organized by the school principal and teachers, the students spent afternoons mixing dirt, clay and water together to form bricks, making mortar and stacking the finished bricks high to form the walls of the library. Many of them were students doing the work on empty stomachs.
Keefe’s lessons have been restructured to focus almost solely on reading and comprehension. She noticed that while her students can copy down notes every day, they aren’t able to understand them when they study on their own. They’ve also started reading clubs and after-school study groups based on their reading levels. Each group meets twice per week to play reading games, identify difficult words and build confidence in themselves and their reading.
“When I look at the big picture, we have really been preparing for this library from the beginning, and I can’t wait to see the payoff once we have physical books in our hands,” Keefe said.
If you would send books to students in Africa, join the African Library Project at africanlibraryproject.org.