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Students collect books to help rebuild African schools

CARLSBAD — On behalf of what is being described as the “biggest book drive ever,” students from La Costa Canyon High School packed and shipped off more than 49,000 books they collected from area schools, to help raise money for schools in a war-torn region in eastern Africa.
“We collected 49,713 books, to be exact,” Alex Bernatz, a senior from La Costa Canyon High School, said. Bernatz helped coordinate the project along with classmates Kai Gehlsen and Rachel Provenzano. “We reached out to other schools in our community, but the central hub was here.”
Gehlsen, also a senior, said the project helped bring the class, as well as the community, together. Gehlsen said he continues to work with students at El Camino Creek Elementary, one of the schools that helped to collect books. San Dieguito Academy, Canyon Crest Academy, Paul Ecke Central Elementary, and the private Rhodes School also held book drives.
Although part of a national effort, the books will be sold to raise money for a local nonprofit, Invisible Children, Inc., working to improve the quality of life for students in Uganda.
The project was just one of many for Christopher Greenslate’s Social Justice class at La Costa Canyon High School, a class Greenslate is credited with starting at the school.
The students collected books on behalf of Better World Books, a socially conscience online bookseller, in conjunction with Invisible Children, as part of the national campaign called, “The Biggest Book Drive Ever.”
Provenzano said after collecting books, they stacked and loaded them into trucks provided by the Better World Books. Better World Books will sell the books, and then donate proceeds to Invisible Children, the nonprofit organization formed in 2005 after the release of their film about the 23-year war in northern Uganda, where children were being abducted and trained to fight in the Lord’s Resistance Army, whose goal is to overthrow the government.
Often described as the longest-running war in Africa and the most neglected humanitarian emergency, the organization hopes to raise awareness and funds to help rebuild schools.
The campaign kicked off the 15-city tour with what has been called a moving documentary.
The national Schools for Schools campaign is providing help to the students of northern Uganda by supporting education, literacy and community development programs in that country.
“Our unique partnership with Invisible Children’s Schools for Schools program allows ordinary citizens across the U.S. and Canada to support lasting peace in Uganda by donating a resource both countries have in vast quantities — books,” Xavier Helgesen, co-founder of Better World Books, said.
The student team that collected the most books will travel to Uganda to aid in the effort.
However, the students of Greenslate’s class are not the only ones helping those in need in the continent. While the students of the Social Justice class were busy collecting books, Greenslate was in East Africa with four other teachers as part of a fellowship sponsored by the San Diego chapter of Rotary International.
“The timing was perfect,” Greenslate said. “I think the fact that my students knew I was in East Africa while they were working on the book drive, helped them to know that their efforts are crucial.”
In turn, he said, “Being in Uganda, visiting schools, and developing relationships with people, helped me to understand the value of what my students are doing.”
And now, three years after Greenslate pitched his idea for the Social Justice class to school administrators, another school in the district offers it as well.
“It (the class) has really opened up a different perspective on everything,” Bernatz said. “He teaches with a non-bias.”
While what is learned in the classroom has been a education for many of the Social Justice students, some of the most important lessons are not taught in the classroom.
“While the classroom is a great place for research, collaboration and discussion, there is no substitute for actually getting out in the world and doing this work,” Greenslate said. “Students learn the complexities and demands of situations firsthand, which usually deepens their commitment to social justice.”
Gehlsen said the projects they do have definitely created an awareness. He recounted how for one class project he stopped showering to raise awareness for the homeless.
“Only my mom wasn’t too happy,” he joked.
“It is hard to dedicate so much time to projects, in hopes of having an impact, and not have it stick with you,” said Shanell Rodriguez, a student in the Social Justice class, and a senior at La Costa Canyon High School. Rodriguez returned from Tanzania, Africa, just as the book drive was winding down and just a few days before Greenslate left on his trip. Although Rodriguez’s trip to the Rift Valley Children’s orphanage was not directly connected to the school project or Greenslate’s trip, the timing was “perfect.”
“I felt everything was just meant to be,” Rodriguez said. “Invisible Children is a very touching story, and to go over there and see the children there, like the ones in the movie, was very moving. The poverty was everywhere. To see it firsthand and to be face to face with these children was indescribable. They are so grateful for everything.”
For more information or to help, visit the Invisible Children’s Web site at