Erika Henningsen is a professional Broadway actress living in New York City. Her roles in various productions such as Mean Girls Broadway led her to seek ways to be of service.
“I’ve always felt that being an actor can be an extremely self absorbing process. You are constantly focused on the ‘me’ of the equation because you are essentially the CEO of your company. Volunteering forces you outside of your small bubble of needs, aspirations, and fears and gets your brain and soul involved in something larger than yourself. It is so necessary as an artist, especially when given a platform of ANY type, to use what energies you have to give back.”
Her passion for education and literacy, matched perfectly with African Library Project.
“The mission of the ALP is very easy to get behind, but they conduct themselves in a way that’s more effective than any other non-profit trying to achieve the same goal. There is constant communication between you and your container coordinator, check-ins, detailed instructions, and help when you need it. I also think they are effective in ensuring volunteers know exactly where the books are going. You get to complete the circle of your mission by knowing the donations ended up in the hands you were collecting them for.”
Erika was paired with a shipping container destined for Kenya. As fate would have it, she was playing the lead role in Mean Girls, who is a transfer student from Kenya, during her book drive.
“I was so lucky to have Mean Girls during my book drive process because I could mobilize our fan base of the show and the kids who came to the stage door to give back. Beyond our cast, company and crew donating books, we had families at the stage door every night bringing bags of newly bought books and favorites from home.”
Of course, Erika’s book drive was not without its challenges.
“The hardest thing was coordinating books from the theater to my apartment which was where we did the boxing and packing. I live in a studio apartment two avenues away from the theater, so we were able to take books home in a grocery cart three times a week. As crazy as it felt sometimes to be lugging books in the 90 degree July weather, the sight of a library forming in my apartment hallway was so special. When we were ready to ship, my castmates from Mean Girls showed up to walk boxes one-by-one to the post office, also two blocks away. The fact that we accomplished this with no car, no trucks, and completely donation-based out of a Broadway theater is really special to me, and reminded me that just because I’m in the heart of crazy New York, it doesn’t mean I can’t accomplish something like this.”
One of the greatest lessons Erika learned was about the inter-connectivity of her networks, and how tapping into those networks can effect real change.
“It definitely takes a whole village, and if you have a village, you should utilize it. We were only part one of the long journey those books took to get to Kenya, and it would not have happened without countless people coming together to do so.”
Erika found her book drive experience – and the fact that many of these books would be the first a child had the opportunity to read – to be very humbling, and a reminder of the blessings in her life that she once overlooked.
“I revisited some of my favorite childhood books: Rainbow Fish, Chrysanthemum, Stellaluna. I took all these books for granted when I was a kid; I just assumed they’d be there, that I would always have something to read. Reading is one of my greatest pleasures in life; it allows me to escape and imagine for me, not for my job.”
One of the reasons working with ALP was so rewarding, to Erika, was that it was more than just writing a check.
“I think it is very easy for people to donate money, but you never know where that money is going to go. Donating books feels tactile, it takes special effort. In that sense, it felt special and unique not just to me but I think the various people who volunteered, donated, and got involved.”
To those who would like to help, but are unsure how to start, Erika had this to say:
“Use your community, use your village. It can feel daunting starting out as a single organizer, but I realized people want to help, they just need direction, a specific cause, someone to lead the charge.