A Vandergrift High School senior was recognized statewide for starting a literacy charity that provided a struggling African school with thousands of books, desks and an English-learning app.
Officials presented 17-year-old senior Carissa Mallory a bronze medallion as a state finalist in the 2017 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards for outstanding volunteer service at the May 24 Vandergrift High School awards program.
Mallory founded the Reading Around the World Literacy Initiative (RAWLI). Within the last three years, the charity has provided schools in Tanzania with 10,000 books, 350 desks and chairs and an educational app that helps Swahili-speaking students learn English and, subsequently, advance to secondary school.
VHS administrators nominated Mallory for the Spirit award, sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals and Prudential Financial. There were more than 31,000 nominees nationwide. National honorees received a $5,000 grant for their charity.
While Mallory was not selected as a national honoree, RAWLI still made an impact in Tanzanian children's lives. At the Gerezani Primary School, where RAWLI began its initial work, the English literacy grade point average increased from 2.0 to 2.99.
English skills are necessary because Tanzanian secondary education is currently taught in English using books donated by the United States and Great Britain.
Primary school students begin English classes in what is the equivalent of American kindergarten and continue with it for five years. They are also learning Swahili and other subjects, so instruction time is limited.
“With such a short period to learn English fluently, most kids can't pass the entrance exams to secondary school,” Mallory said.
The provision of educational resources with a focus on transitioning students to secondary school is the mission of RAWLI.
It appears to be working, and the pay-off will be life-long.
“Since I've gone back each year for three years to the same school, I've seen kids who weren't able to read at all now read fluently in English," Mallory said. "I've seen kids develop a passion for learning that I know will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”
Mallory became interested in Africa seven years ago when her uncle married a Tanzanian lawyer.
“I'd seen pictures of African kids, and it looked like they had no resources but, somehow, my aunt had become very educated,” Mallory said.
She learned from her aunt that many Tanzanian students do not continue their education past the primary level, because at that time they had to pay for secondary school. Also, as previously mentioned, students lacked the English skills to pass the entrance exam.
Mallory’s “aha moment” followed when one day she perused her book collection.
“I realized that I learned English from reading those books, and I knew at that moment that books could help kids in Africa learn English,” Mallory said.
After much pleading with her parents, Edwin and Lisa, the couple finally agreed to take Mallory to Africa and her friend, Sara Campbell, went as well. Mallory’s aunt connected them with the Gerezani Primary School in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
“We were so excited to visit the school to donate books we took, but when we asked the headmistress to show us the library, she got kind of a strange look on her face," Mallory said. "She led us down a long hallway until we finally reached an old door with peeling paint and creaking hinges. She opened the door, and to my shock, there was just an empty room filled with what looked like decades of dust and old broken desks. The school had no books at all.”
Now, 10,000 books from Leander ISD and Katy ISD fill the room. Another 2,000 are sitting stateside, waiting for shipment.
Also, due to a new law funding secondary education for any student who passes the entrance exam, school officials asked RAWLI if they could find desks and chairs for three Tanzanian schools. The volunteers found 350 that were to be discarded by Liberty Hill ISD.
And finally, an instrumental donation came from a United Kingdom software programmer. “Overpass Apps Ltd. helped us develop an educational game called Swahili Bubble Bath to teach Swahili-speaking children English,” said Mallory.
For the future, RAWLI is directing greater attention to obtaining technology devices and training.
It is also looking to fulfill a basic need – the replacement of broken school windows, through which dust blows from unpaved roads. “The kids take turns dusting and mopping the floors, but dust isn't good for the books or the technology,” Mallory noted.
As Tanzanian schools, and especially Gerezani’s 400 students, are poised to make the most of their new resources, so Mallory is poised to continue pursuing her dream as she enters the University of Texas McCombs School of Business this fall. “I feel compelled to continue to help. I have a dream now to start a social enterprise along the business model of Tom's shoes, but instead of giving away shoes, we'll give away books and technology,” she said.
Looking back to three years ago, Mallory recalled meeting with the education attaché at the Tanzanian U.S. Embassy. “I was a little intimidated because the staff wanted to talk directly with me since RAWLI was my project; I was only 14-years-old. I did my best to advocate for the kids of Tanzania and asked the Embassy to help get more books for them.
“I was amazed and excited when in the following spring, they had arranged for a huge donation from the United States of 1.5 million used textbooks. I learned from this that even a young person could be an effective advocate for a cause in which they believe. You're never too young to use your voice to effect change,” Mallory said.
Anyone wishing to donate to RAWLI, which is accepting technology items as well as financial contributions, can go to email@example.com or www.rawli.org.