Wilma den Hartigh
Former US first lady Jacqueline Kennedy once said that a love of books is the best way to enlarge a child's world. But for many children in South Africa, this is not the reality.
Access to books is limited for many of the country's children, depriving them of the opportunity to develop a love for reading. It also puts children at a major disadvantage when it comes to literacy and educational opportunities.
Chris Dykes from Infinity Learning, an organisation that equips children with study skills through various programmes, decided to establish the Bookshelf Project in response to the desperate need for reading material in many impoverished communities in South Africa.
The project provides books and bookshelves to any organisation that works with children in such a capacity, mainly in Gauteng province.
The project has already set up the infrastructure that will impact the lives of 2 000 to 3 000 children through the eight centres, which have already received bookshelves stocked with books.
Stimulating a love for reading
Dykes says the need for books became apparent in his conversations with staff at children's centres and schools in underprivileged areas.
"It became clear to us that limited access to books was one of the main barriers to literacy improvement," he says.
South Africa has a major literacy challenge. According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, coordinated by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, 80% of South African pupils do not develop basic reading skills by the time they reach grade five.
"Our vision for the project is to facilitate a love for reading. I realised that kids need books to read. Many children don't read because they don't have access to books, not because they don't want to," Dykes says.
Building bookshelves and collecting books
He believes it isn't enough to just teach a child to read. What children need is something worthwhile reading.
"Children have to read books that are interesting, fun and that will help them to dream," he says. This will help children improve their literacy skills, build their confidence and imagination, and ultimately improve their academic performance.
The project has partnered with aftercare centres and schools that have a need for books and are keen run reading groups and homework sessions for the children they work with.
"The initiative needs existing infrastructure to provide kids with a safe place to read," he says.
Instead of just distributing books, Dykes and his team also provide hand-made bookshelves to each centre. "Each bookshelf is built at our homes in our free time and no fees are charged for this time," he says.
But he says the project is growing so quickly that he is running out of time to build bookshelves. Soon he will have to outsource the construction to a carpenter.
"Doing this is a great job creation opportunity that can also come from the project," he says.
Each bookshelf costs about R900 (US$122) to build and he is negotiating with a local hardware store to get a discounted price on the material needed for each shelf.
The bookshelves are 1.8-meters wide and 1.5-meters high and can house 500 to 600 books. The goal is to ensure that every book collection contains a variety of books, including encyclopaedias, dictionaries, study guides, reference books, story books and picture books.
All the books are donated by second-hand bookshops, schools and individuals who support the programme.
"The response to the project has been phenomenal," Dykes says. Just recently, a UK-based organisation, Book-Cycle, donated 3 000 to 5 000 books for the project.
To date, the Bookshelf Project has collected books to the value of approximately R175 000 ($24 000). Some of the books are not suitable for children and are donated to other charities such as Friends of Rescued Animals and Forest Farm, which supports people with cerebral palsy.
The Bookshelf Project has a goal to reach at least 10 000 children in the next three years, but Dykes says this is a conservative estimate.
He says that the main goal is to collect as many books as possible. In the next few months, he wants to set up a book-collection system involving schools in Johannesburg.
To start out, he wants to approach 10 schools to organise book collection days, once a year. In doing this, the project will receive 500 to 600 books every month. He also wants to ensure that each bookshelf is stocked with new books every year so that the children won't run out of reading material.
The Bookshelf Project is a labour of love for Dykes and he is encouraged by the positive response to it. He says that he is also amazed at how well the children have responded to the project.
"I met a 16-year-old girl who had never owned a book in her life because her parents are too poor to buy her any books. It was heartbreaking," he says.
Through the project, she can experience the benefits of reading. Children are also taking ownership of the bookshelves by keeping them neat and tidy.
"The kids at the centres are just incredible," says Dykes.