One Book and Bike at a Time: FCPS Student Donation Drive Making a Difference for Tanzanian Community
Inside a school in northeast Tanzania, dozens of children sat on wooden benches, with their feet on a dirt floor and four mud walls surrounding them. There wasn’t a drop of color anywhere. Everything was brown. When Madison High School rising junior Sophia Brown saw this on her recent trip, she was determined to bring some color to this classroom. She helped as each student dipped their hand in paint, then carefully placed it on the door, leaving a lasting handprint in bright blue, red, orange, or green. Inside the one-room schoolhouse, a new mural of sea creatures added another splash of color. But the most exciting addition to the school sat in the corner: a brand new library with dozens of books.
It’s a project years in the making. Sophia grew up around volunteer work and community service, but she’s always been particularly drawn to helping kids in Africa. In second grade, she began working with the non-profit ‘Wheels to Africa’, which provides used bikes to communities in need. At just 14 years old, she collected more than 1,000 books to help create a library in the African country of Malawi. Now, Sophia is working toward the highest honor in Girl Scouts, the Gold Award, through her project ‘Books and Bikes For Africa’.
“I was thinking about what are two of the most dire needs in society? Transportation and education.” Sophia said. “Books are one of the biggest necessities of education. And without access to cars, another option is bikes. It’s more affordable and can help you get places way faster.”
Sophia spent the last year planning her trip to Tanzania, which was made even more difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Every Saturday morning, she had a planning call with her project mentor Dixie Duncan, who is the founder of ‘Wheels to Africa’. Together, along with Sophia’s mom Kelly Wolfe, they worked for months to gather donations. Sophia used social media to spread the word about her project. Pretty soon, the books were pouring in. They also held a bike drive at Madison in May and collected around 50 bikes.
In June, the trio traveled to Tanzania to visit a Maasai village located not far from the tourist area of Mt. Kilimanjaro. This remote region is known for its wildlife and tribal traditions, but the Maasai people experience devastating poverty, and struggle daily with access to education, food, and clean water.
“They walk everywhere,” Sophia said. “The kids walk miles upon miles every single day to get to school, and the teachers as well. A bike could cut that time in half. And make it easier to get to school. To get food. To get every single thing you need in life.”
Due to shipping difficulties, the bikes Sophia collected in May did not make it to Africa in time for their trip. So they improvised; they bought used bikes in Africa with donation money, then transported the bikes to the Maasai village.
“Their jaws drop at the sight of a bike,” she said. “It changes lives entirely.”
Sophia says one of the most impactful moments was giving a bike to a teacher named Naomi, who travels miles everyday to teach more than 75 kids at the school. The gift brought tears to Naomi’s eyes.
“She was so grateful,” Duncan said. “It’s people like her that inspire you to do whatever it takes.”
Sophia says one of her favorite experiences of the trip was watching the kids react to the colorful new books now stocked in their classroom library. The books are in English, which serves as a valuable learning tool for these children. Learning English is an integral part of the education in the region, because many aim to work in the tourism industry surrounding Mt. Kilimanjaro.
On the trip, Sophia also spoke to middle school age girls about female health issues, and taught them how to use reusable menstrual pads. She says one of the biggest takeaways from her trip is to take nothing for granted.
“Being in this community where we’re so fortunate, we don't really realize how much people are in need,” Sophia said. “I want to continue to spread awareness, and make this bigger and bigger, so more people know about it.”
Sophia says she plans to hold another bike drive and wants to go to Africa again next summer. She says she couldn’t have done the project without her supporters at FCPS and Madison. She is especially grateful to School Board Member Melanie Meren, Hunter Mill District, who has donated to the cause and supported Sophia along the way.
To find out more about ‘Wheels to Africa’, visit their website. To find out more about ‘Books and Bikes for Africa’, visit their Instagram page.