Refugees Read Inc. was born out of a simple idea from a Hamilton teacher – give a child a book to read and help change his or her life.
“And what better way to educate children than to send them books?” asked Justin Ralston, a special education teacher at Hamilton Community Schools.
With the help of students and donations from book lovers, Ralston, director and founder of Refugees Read Inc., has collected several thousand books to send to schools in Uganda.
Now all that’s needed is some cash for shipping fees – $10,000 worth, to be exact. So for Christmas this year, the group is asking for $5,000 in monetary donations to help offset shipping costs and get the books out of storage and into the hands of African children.
The organization is just one of many area nonprofits included in The Journal Gazette’s annual holiday charity giving list. The listing began Friday with details of the needs for groups that help others during the holidays, and it concludes Sunday with a special listing for animal organizations.
Refugees Read, based in Angola, began in 2009 after Ralston’s fourth trip to Uganda as part of his studies in education and social work. Ralston returned to the U.S. after his summer trip just as the school librarian was preparing to clean the bookshelves.
“They were giving away a lot of books, and it just sort of clicked with me that I’d just come back from a refugee camp, and education would be the only way they would be able to move themselves out of the camp,” he said.
With the help of Hamilton students, Ralston collected several containers full of books and National Honor Society students raised $1,000 to send the first shipment.
A while later, Ralston returned to Uganda, this time to help create a library. He worked alongside the African people to build and organize bookshelves, and set up a library system, complete with a librarian.
“It just hit me that this shouldn’t just be a one-time thing. The need was so great,” Ralston said.
Today, the organization operates three programs under its main group “Refugees Read”: Supporting Individuals with Disabilities, the Library to Library project and Promoting Education and Literacy.
Shipping funds needed
Since that first delivery, Refugees Read has sent more than 5,500 pounds of books to two sites in Uganda, according to the organization’s website.
Books of all varieties are welcome, Ralston said, but volunteers sort through books and recycle those that wouldn’t be useful to recipients. Top-requested books include school textbooks such as biology, chemistry, computer basics, English grammar, French and French grammar, geography, history, mathematics, physics and public health, according to the group’s website.
Within the past year, however, the organization has collected so many books that they’ve had to find extra storage in Angola and Hamilton. And while that’s a good problem to have, Ralston added, it creates headaches for transporting the donations more than 7,600 miles to Uganda.
“We’ve had such a great response. We have thousands of books that we need to ship,” he said. “But it’s also a challenge because it’s so expensive to ship them.”
To send its next shipment, Ralston said, the shipping container will cost between $8,000 and $10,000 – several thousand dollars more than any shipment sent in the past. Once the money has been raised, volunteers will have two hours to load the container before it has to be transported to a ship which will carry it across the ocean.
“It’s a very lengthy process,” he said. “It can take anywhere from four to six months.”
Even after the books have reached land in Africa, they’ll need to travel by truck to get through customs, Ralston said. After they’ve been processed, the container will be driven down dirt roads to the refugee camps – one that’s located seven hours away from Uganda’s capitol city, Kampala.
Although it’s a lot of work, Ralston said seeing and hearing the feedback from refugees makes it all worthwhile.
“Their stories are heartbreaking, but it also reminds me why I do what I do.”