ALP: Can you tell us about yourself – Where do you live? Are you in school? What are some of your hobbies? We want to get to know you!
MZ: My name is Maryam Zehra. I live in San Jose, California, USA and am currently a junior at The Harker High School.
I have always been passionate about doing something about social issues like global literacy, health disparity and gender inequality. Working with organizations (Literacy International, Help Aid Africa) for the last couple of years, I have had the opportunity to find ways to help and support schools in underserved communities. These initiatives have provided me a platform to interact and work closely with people across the continents and learn from them. As the Vice President of my school’s Japanese National Honor Society, I have organized fundraisers and events to teach others about Japanese culture and lead my society members. I understand the role thoroughly and support our president in overseeing initiatives. We greatly expanded this year from the small number of traditional events to many others that can include non-Japanese speaking people and work with other clubs and organizations for outside opportunities, volunteering, tutoring, and different types of projects such as anime movie nights and manga contests.
With Help Aid Africa, I was the Youth Media Director and led similar work to build awareness for the need of literacy in underprivileged communities and communicated with many people to accomplish these projects. I also extended my help to the Red Cross youth and organized many educational health and disaster awareness events.
I have also been tutoring struggling kids for the past few years in both my local community and abroad. I also have experience with neurodivergent children or children with learning differences and believe society can be more welcoming to them. I have a lot of compassion for families with autistic children or loved ones with cancer.
Along with a strong propensity for helping others, I am also passionate about STEM and have taken advanced science courses both in school and at Brown University I also work shifts at the Stanford Blood Center every week. I am in the medical, psychology, and women in stem clubs at school. Thus, I plan on pursuing a career in the medical field, likely oncology.
As for my hobbies, I love art, particularly graphic design. Since I was a young child, I have been sketching and now I take advanced courses at school 2D art mediums. Additionally, I have incorporated my skills to aid my community by creating numerous flyers and infographics for the Silicon Valley Youth Red Cross events and designing presentations and collages for Literacy International, Help Aid Africa, Africa Library Project, and Japanese National Honor Society.
I am also in performing arts: I act in my school’s productions and sing in choir. Lastly, I play lacrosse and have been on the varsity team throughout high school.
ALP: How did you hear about the African Library Project?
MZ: I came to know about the African Library Project through Help Aid Africa, an organization where I volunteer regularly.
ALP: What motivated you to volunteer?
MZ: As an adolescent growing up in America, I am aware that I have been given privileges that many teenagers around the world do not share. Through the programs at Help Aid Africa, I have been trying to help extend opportunities for less fortunate communities in other countries to improve their education systems which will thus brighten the future of those raised there. One thing most schools in under-privileged communities lack is quality learning resources, proper facilities, and access to quality books. What they don’t lack is the love for learning, inquisitive minds, and passion for doing something great and that’s what motivates me to volunteer for their better future.
ALP: What book drive container(s) have you signed up for and/or completed?
MZ: I have completed two book drives for the African Library Project; Kikulu Zone Community Library (G3-19) in Uganda by myself (September 2021 – February 2022), and Beremayena DA Basic School (G11-39) in Ghana as a volunteer a part of a team (Aug 2021) .
ALP: Can you tell us about your experience as a book drive organizer? What were some of your favorite aspects of volunteering? What were some of the most challenging aspects of volunteering?
MZ: The two library projects for Uganda and Ghana have been the most profound experience of my life. These experiences have increased my motivation and passion for education multi-fold.
These programs provided me a platform as a young student to interact and work closely with people from diverse backgrounds living on another continent. It was also an amazing experience to talk to folks in the local community who are also passionate about books and willing to donate their pre-loved books for others. Seeing the eyes of kids light up when they drop off their books is the best experience one can have.
The most challenging part of the book drive for the African Library Project was packaging the books for shipment. Packaging requires ensuring the books were not damaged in transit by making sure each box is of appropriate weight and books were sorted by subjects. This usually takes a long time and needs to be planned ahead.
ALP: What lessons did you learn, in general, from volunteering? Anything that changed your perspective on access to books as you understand it?
MZ: I have gained more knowledge and experience on how to communicate effectively with various folks (including leaders in the community, fellow volunteers, and collaborators across the continent).
As an adolescent growing up in America, I am aware that I have been given privileges that many teenagers around the world do not share. Working with the team members the African Library Project to understand the needs of the local community, I understood that the reality is more dire than I had imagined. Some of the communities do not have access to reading material and books that are essential for education.
ALP: Do you have any advice for future book drive organizers?
MZ: For future organizers, I would advise them to plan every phase of their book drive ahead of time. It really helps to invest initially in marketing the event by creating social media flyers and provide very specific book needs. Organizing book drive and advertising in local groups ahead of time helps. The most important advice is to plan extra time for sorting and packaging the books. It helps to follow the exact instructions from the Container Managers at the African Library Project. Finally enjoy the experience, your life is not going to be the same after this.
ALP: Why do you believe others should volunteer with the African Library Project?
MZ: We all want to make a difference in society but don’t know where to start. The African Library Project provides a platform and structure that allows individuals and teams to make a huge difference across the African continent. The organization allows volunteers to gain a life experience that will shape their future and give a better understanding about the disparities around the globe.
Interested in creating a library for a school or community in a country in sub-Saharan Africa? Sign-up to become a book drive organizer here. Opportunities are available throughout the year. When you sign-up for a book drive, you will be matched directly with the library recipient. That way you are able to collect books are the right reading level for the readers. Click here to learn more about African Library Project book drives. We would love to have you join our community that creates new libraries in schools and communities that do not have a library or nearly enough books to properly teach literacy. As a volunteer, you will make a direct impact to global literacy.