It’s painful to see rural schools in our area close. It severs one of the arteries of a small community. With Canada’s level population and declining enrollment, it’s a reality that we’ll have to face for the next generation. School boards can no longer continue to support partly filled classrooms and provide all the services that our high-tech education system demands. What’s heartbreaking, though, is to see surplus unneeded school supplies sold for scrap or worse yet, dumped in a landfill.
In 2008, Grand Bend Rotarian, Peter Twynstra, led a group of local residents and Rotarians on a sightseeing trip of South Africa: a country he knows well because of his career in the edible bean industry, which involved shipments of beans and other agricultural products to many countries overseas. He grew extremely fond of South Africa and has used that expertise to lead several groups of interested travelers there. While in South Africa, the first group of visitors had an opportunity, through a local Rotarian, to visit one of the rural schools in Mpumalanga Province in northeastern South Africa.
This school was staffed with enthusiastic teachers and full of eager “learners”, as the students are called there. The problem was that teaching aides, like blackboards, computers, and even desks and chairs, were not to be found. The group was taken by surprise with the lack of basic supplies that we take for granted here, but a spontaneous collection provided some funds the teacher could use to buy much needed pencils, books and other items.
Not long after the group’s return home, one of the participants was horrified to see perfectly good desks being thrown into a dumpster behind a school which had recently closed in the area. She implored Peter to find a way to get these supplies over to the South African school that they had visited. This is how ‘Literacy Project’ came to be, but, at first, the school boards were reluctant to change their method of dealing with the surplus items. In fact, they were hiring summer students to cut the covers off books so that the paper could be recycled. After much pleading and promises, the first container of surplus school supplies, including about 20,000 books, was loaded in the spring of 2009 and shipped to the very school in South Africa where the tour had visited. Needless to say, the teachers and learners were overjoyed with all of the bounty. The books, especially, created opportunities for reading that hadn’t existed previously. 
It also created local problems: other schools in the area heard of their good fortune and wondered when their containers would arrive. Also, because of the random nature of the surplus there’s often a mismatch between the numbers of desks and chairs, too much of one item and not enough of another. By the time the third container rolled around, contact had been made with the Rotary Club of Middleburg, South Africa and a Rotarian by the name of Charles Deiner, who is the sparkplug for this vibrant club of about 40 members.
His Club agreed to take on the role of receiving the sea containers at their arrival in Durban, unloading them at a warehouse in Middleburg and redistributing them to a number of schools in need. Indeed this action has solved many of the early problems and provided some continuity, as well as checks and balances to make sure the supplies are getting exactly where they’re needed most. In fact, Charles and his crew catalogue all of the equipment and furniture as it arrives so that they can keep track of where it’s gone.
Over the years, the project has expanded to include the Thames Valley School Board in the London area and the Avon Maitland School Board in Huron and Perth counties. Local transport has been provided by Hensall Global Logistics which has been very generous in bending the normal tight shipping rules and providing us with extended payment terms. 
One question that’s been asked is “Why not just give the $7500 cost of shipping the container to the South African Rotary Clubs and let them buy furniture over there?” There are several answers to this question. Cash in developing countries is always a dangerous commodity which often disappears. The value of the contents of each container is estimated conservatively at $125,000. It would be impossible to replace even a fraction of those goods with the shipping cost. Of course, the third reason is that we have these supplies and they are going to end up in a landfill if we can’t find an appropriate home for them.
At first the loading process took more than one day for a container. In recent times, we have loaded two containers in just over six hours using many volunteers. As the saying goes, many hands make light work. We have learned a lot over these few years and in total, we’ve been involved in the loading of over 100 containers to date. Most of these containers have gone to South Africa although some have been directed to Haiti and Guyana and most recently, Eswatini.
We’ve now reached a point where we’re ready to take the project to the next level. We know that the downsizing of schools is happening all over Ontario and right across Canada. We recognize that it’s a daunting task to develop the partnerships and provide logistics for a program such as this. Since 2012 over a dozen different Rotary Clubs have stepped up to assist with the project by funding entire containers and assisting with the loading process. We hope this will continue to happen as Clubs see an opportunity with schools that are closing in their local communities.  No doubt there are businesses that could get on board to assist in sponsoring all or part of a container. What a great way to provide a silver lining to an otherwise sad event! 
When unneeded school supplies are shipped to a school that has nothing, everyone wins. For the African school kids, their education has been enhanced immeasurably; the school board has reduced the cost of disposing of these unneeded supplies, and the taxpayer has saved the landfill cost as well. What a wonderful outcome all the way around. 
So, who has been helped to date? We’ve shipped 100 sea containers to 15 different locations. The over 3,000,000 books have been distributed in Africa across some 50,000 students. For over 5000 children this will provide them with the first book they’ve ever held! We’ve also included medical supplies, wheelchairs and crutches, which have been distributed to area clinics. Baseball bats, balls, soccer supplies and surplus uniforms have been made available to kids who play soccer with a ball of rags. We’ve stocked dozens of school libraries. We found that when the schools have a reading library, the teachers take time each day with the students to help them read, something that didn’t take place before.
Another success story is the music program. In spite of their musical nature, many of the 550 schools in this district had no musical instruments whatsoever. We’ve shipped dozens of pianos, organs and keyboards, which have been distributed to waiting schools but not just any school. These pianos which are almost worthless in Canada are so valuable there that only a school with an active choir that’s participating in regional competitions is eligible to receive one. All of these goods have come at no cost to Rotary, other than the volunteer labour to organize, to pick them up, load and ship them.
One last connection that’s been made is with an organization called the Ontario Christian Gleaners. They collect surplus produce across southwestern Ontario and, in their processing facility in Cambridge, Ontario, volunteers turn this produce which was otherwise going to compost, into bags of dehydrated soup mix, which will provide 100 servings of a nutritious meal for school students at mid-day. Many of the schools in this part of rural Africa are 5 to 10 kilometers from the nearest village. Students travel on foot and of course can’t go home for lunch, and so lunch must be provided at the school when available. The challenge is that many of these students are on anti-retroviral drugs and without a nutritious meal, can’t continue to take the drugs. 40,000 servings of this soup mix were added to a recent container without taking any space away from the school supplies themselves.
Again, I want to provide thanks to our partners in Africa, the Rotary Club of Middleburg and several other Rotary Clubs throughout South Africa, our volunteers here in Canada and the generous Clubs here that have participated to date.
Funding to date has come primarily from the Rotary Club of Grand Bend, but also from generous Clubs & donors along the way. The Rotary Club of Grand Bend stands ready to assist other Clubs and organizations with technical and logistic support including the paperwork to speed the container through customs at the other side.
For more information about how you can get involved, please contact Brian Hall at (519) 238-6116 or  or Peter Twynstra at (519) 293-3998 or .  (Nov 2023)