In 2000, Ottawa-based journalist Deborah Cowley went to Ghana in Africa to write an article about Kathy Knowles, the Winnipeg founder of the OSU Children’s Library Fund.
Cowley says after she wrote her initial article for Reader's Digest about Knowles, she couldn't stop thinking about it. So she decided to give up her journalism career and volunteer to help with the project.
Sixteen years later, Cowley has written a book called The Library Tree: How a Canadian Woman Brought the Joy of Reading to a Generation of African Children. She's in Winnipeg to share her story on Thursday evening.
Knowles had started off reading to a handful of children in her garden in Africa. That number quickly grew to 70. She had no choice but to turn her garage into what would become the first of many libraries in impoverished areas.
"Knowles recognized that the schools weren't providing the essentials for children. They weren't teaching them how to read, there were no books, the rooms were overcrowded. And she was changing that," explained Cowley.
"Her libraries have been more than teaching kids how to read," she added. "They offer dancing, drumming, drama, lunch programs and so much more."
Staffing at the libraries has been important and continues to be a challenge.
"Kathy insisted on getting written confirmation from the local government to pay the salaries of the library staff," Cowley said.
"It's the librarians who attract the children, welcome them in and help them learn to read. They are key."
Over her 15 years observing and helping with the project, Cowley has met so many children who have benefited from these libraries.
"Martin came down from the north, after his parents died, to live with his brother. By secondary school they ran out of money," she said.
"He was very special and gifted, so he received a scholarship to go to high school. He's since done amazing things, from producing plays to teaching younger children. He's also written 17 plays."
There are now seven libraries and in the spring of 2014, the OSU Children's Library Fund will open its eighth children's community library in Accra, the capital of Ghana. It will be the largest project so far.
The launch of The Library Tree: How a Canadian Woman Brought the Joy of Reading to a Generation of African Children by Deborah Cowley takes place at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson Books.