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Shannon McNamara: The Girl Who Won the Birth Lottery

Imagine wanting to learn, but because you are a girl, you are not allowed to spend much time at school. Imagine growing up knowing that your ultimate goal in life would be to obey your husband's orders. Imagine your mom not wanting you to be given the opportunity to read. Imagine being trapped in literary darkness because you're too poor to buy a book. Imagine!

Shannon, a 15 year old girl growing up in New Jersey couldn't imagine. She couldn't sit by and do nothing. Sure, Shannon had grown up traveling the world. She'd lived in several countries and even traveled to 20 of them. But familiarity with poverty and illiteracy was not going to lessen her determination to make a difference in the world.

"I grew up with my parents telling me I had won the “birth lottery” by being born in America," Shannon said. So, when a chance to visit Africa came up, she did some research and learned that the area she'd be traveling to was experiencing a "book famine." Being an early reader, and a book lover by nature, that fact hit her square in the head...and in extra pieces of luggage for everyone traveling with her. Determined to help solve the crisis, especially for girls, she gathered books from around her neighborhood and packed up 500 pounds of books for everyone on the trip to take with them.

However, she was shocked. She'd spent prior summers volunteering in Peru and Costa Rica, but she wasn't prepared for the extreme poverty that existed at this school in Bukoba, Tanzania. This school had no electricity, no running water, and no books.  Supplies were so limited that a student would break one pencil into three pieces to share. Students arrived after walking miles to school in bare feet, sat four to a desk, and did not eat the entire day until they returned home. Completely overwhelmed, Shannon didn't even know where to begin. She wanted to create an after-school reading program just for girls, but there were so many overwhelming problems, she didn't know what to address first.

Renovating the tattered classroom became the first step and was relatively easy compared to the next hurdle and her biggest challenge: convincing the mothers to give permission for their daughters to attend the program. While boys were encouraged to excel academically, girls were expected to perform household chores, such as fetching water, planting beans, and caring for their siblings. Three parents' meetings were held where she spoke passionately about the virtues of educating girls, with the headmistress translating for her.  While most mothers eventually agreed, she found it surprising that several declined.

"I’ll never forget leading the very first after-school program," Shannon shared. "The 23 girls were so mesmerized by the books that even after two hours of instruction they declined my offer to take a play break outside."

“If you don’t mind, Shannon, we prefer to continue reading!" the girls begged. In that moment, Shannon excitedly realized that despite the overwhelming poverty, the seemingly oppressive culture, and the lack of resources available, she still had the power she needed to help these girls.

Right before returning back to the states, the headmistress of the school locked eyes with Shannon and whispered, "Don't forget us." Shannon said that those three words haunted and motivated her. Her idea of doing a one-time reading project for a few girls in an African village turned into a mission that would change her life forever.

The next year was spent applying for grants for this industrious 15-year-old girl's new organization, SHARE (Shannon’s After-School Reading Exchange). Being awarded some grants led to local recognition in her community. That recognition lead to more support. That additional supported in turned gained national attention. Weekly interviews with reports became routine. Eventually, Shannon's story was featured on Oprah's Angel Network website homepage and then later on Oprah's radio station. All that attention led to national speaking engagements to not only promote SHARE, but to also inspire other youth her age to get out and do things.

Shannon is 17 now. A mere two years have passed since her first shocking trip to that little African village. She travels back each summer and visits with the girls. Shannon shared her experience. "I remember first meeting them and having to strain my ears just to try to hear their names when they quietly introduced themselves. After just the first year of SHARE’s opportunities, and simple attention, these girls were now talking with me in English about how they dream to become doctors, nurses, teachers, and even presidents. I believe they can do it."

A reporter asked her recently, “Shannon, SHARE obviously consumes so much of your life. I know it must get challenging. Why do you dedicate so much time helping these girls?”

She thought for a moment.

“They are my heroes,” Shannon said. “I’m just giving them what they deserve.”

To learn more about Shannon, or to learn how you can help her transform the reality of the girls in East Africa, visit her website ShareInAfrica.org

This story was contributed by Shannon McNamara and edited by Kama. Thank you so much, Shannon!
Image Source: Shannon McNamara

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