By Jessica Branch
Basking Ridge, New Jersey
As Shannon sees it, no distance is too far when it comes to helping people in need. While growing up she and her family went on "volunteer vacations" to places like Peru and Costa Rica, where they taught English and worked at local orphanages. In 2008, while trying to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award (the group's highest honor given for community service), Shannon began researching schools in Africa, specifically Tanzania. She discovered that those in impoverished rural areas had no reading books and only a handful of textbooks for students—and that girls had far fewer educational options and opportunities than boys. "Two of my biggest passions are women's rights and reading," says Shannon. "I wanted to find a way to address both issues."
She created an afterschool reading program for girls and named it SHARE (Shannon's After-School Reading Exchange). With the help of friends and neighbors, she collected hundreds of books in addition to school supplies and old computers. Several months later Shannon and her family flew to Tanzania, bringing the donations along. With the help of a tour guide, Shannon learned of the Kiteyagwa Primary School in Bukoba, a town on the western shore of Lake Victoria, and decided to make it SHARE's first recipient. Teachers there were eager to participate, and even agreed to stay late and give extra instruction to female students. "The girls picked up on everything so quickly," Shannon says. "They worked so hard and just craved the chance to learn."
Shannon had originally thought of SHARE as a one-time effort. But once she returned home, the project quickly expanded. She held fundraisers, networked with other nonprofits, applied for grants. Shannon also created a website, ShareInAfrica.org, a Facebook page, and a YouTube channel, where viewers can find links to videos and photographs. "We are changing lives in Tanzania by lifting people out of poverty and ignorance," she says. "And social media is the best way for us to reach a wide and passionate audience."
Shannon has since set up programs at three additional schools and has transported some 35,000 books to classroom libraries. The SHARE program has won international accolades from the United Nations, and Shannon was recently invited to speak at the White House for International Women's Day. "I'm fortunate because my parents gave me the opportunity to travel and become a global citizen," she says. "But SHARE proves that when other teens learn about what's happening in developing countries, they'll want to pitch in too."
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.