Just Be A Child charity: Bringing books to deprived children

PUBLISHED: 14:42 12 August 2019

A place to study. The charity has also introduced arts, writing and sports programmes (photo: Just Be A Child)

A place to study. The charity has also introduced arts, writing and sports programmes (photo: Just Be A Child)

Just Be A Child

Raised under a repressive regime, the founder of a Herts charity is using books to empower deprived children to determine their lives

'"You will never be anybody," said my college head. It was not because of my lack of intelligence or ability to grasp knowledge but because my parents weren't followers of the communists' regime.'

Lenka McAlinden grew up in Czechoslovakia, which was under totalitarian rule from 1948 to 1989, when communist ideology permeated citizens' lives and dominated all aspects of society. Those who did not comply were not only interrogated, intimidated and put under surveillance but also subjected to house searches, during which the secret police invaded people's privacy while searching for what the state deemed illegal literature.

Lenka, who now lives in Stevenage, felt like her life was mapped out, and it didn't look good. It was her mum who gave her the tools to dream.

'My mum supplied me with books about countries we weren't allowed to visit and stories from writers we weren't allowed to read. "Read," she said, "and anything will be possible."

A big thumbs up from the kids (photo: Just Be A Child)A big thumbs up from the kids (photo: Just Be A Child)

Fast forward to 2012 and Lenka was standing on the shore of the Indian Ocean, mourning the loss of her parents.

'I found myself talking to children who too thought their destiny was predetermined. Not by an unkind teacher, but by the cycle of poverty from which it is almost impossible to see a way out - not unless someone points out the way to you. It was then I realised books were just what these children needed.'

Lenka had been holidaying in Kenya when she had this experience - it was to prove life-changing. Within months, in February 2013, she had set up the charity Just Be A Child. Its simple but genius aim was to fill shipping containers with books in Hertfordshire, send them to deprived rural communities in Kenya and transform them into libraries. The first was established in Dzunga in 2015.

'I knew the power of books - the imagination they awaken and the opportunities they lead to,' she explains. 'But what I saw when the first books arrived was beyond my wildest expectations. The faces of the children lit up as they pored through the books, their eyes got wider with every page and smiles got broader with every image. The community came together in huge numbers to help build and subsequently run the library, because they knew how great the library would be for the future of their children.'

The charity has since established two more libraries - in Chidzangoni in 2016 and in Malalani in 2018 - and it is well on the way to establishing more this summer, having shipped enough books for three libraries in June.

Learning to read, discovering new worlds and letting children's imaginations take flight is key to the project (photo: Just Be A Child)Learning to read, discovering new worlds and letting children's imaginations take flight is key to the project (photo: Just Be A Child)

'The one container shipped will become Just Be A Child's own library on the south coast of Kenya, in a place called Shimba Hills. The other two will belong to and be maintained by the County Government of Homa Bay in western Kenya. We are aiming for all three libraries to be opened by the end of August/beginning of September.'

In a move that brings added excitement, but has a serious purpose, Just Be A Child first builds a playground at its library sites, where children can play, socialise, work as a team, share and take turns.

The charity has also been able to introduce libraries to surrounding schools by donating 30 boxes of books to each school in a library's vicinity, and has introduced initiatives such as young writers' competitions, sports days and arts sessions.

'Fun is sometimes hard to come by and having the chance to just sit and draw, cut, glue, paste and otherwise create is precious,' says Lenka. 'We provide a safe place for the children to sit and create. Learning through exploring is a relatively new concept in Kenya and we hope our arts classes will help create a generation of teachers and inquisitive learners.'

A small but wonderful gift from Hertfordshire (photo: Just Be A Child)A small but wonderful gift from Hertfordshire (photo: Just Be A Child)

Since 2015, people from across Hertfordshire have donated in excess of 90,000 books. Donations are kept at removal, storage and shipping specialists Dollimore and Christie on the edge of Great Wymondley near Stevenage, and on the first Saturday of every month volunteers diligently colour code and pack the books in boxes ready for shipping. Just Be A Child is also supported by Stevenage mayor Simon Speller as one his charities of the year.

'We receive amazing support from people living in Hertfordshire,' Lenka enthuses. And it's not just books. 'They give us books, toys, games, jigsaw puzzles, stationery and furniture.'

From the first shipment of 7,000 books in 2015 to 45,000 this year and from building one library per year to building three, the charity and its supporters are making a real impact to children's lives.

'And all this because my mum believed books will allow me to do what circumstances did not,' the 43-year-old smiles.

'We have something that really works, both in the UK and in Kenya. UK schools, individuals and organisations donate thousands of books each month and we are hard-pushed to find storage for them all. In Kenya, the demand for our books is growing too, so it makes sense to import as many books as we can.'

Volunteers after packing up the latest shipping container with donations at Dollimore and Christie's site near Stevenage (photo: Just Be A Child)Volunteers after packing up the latest shipping container with donations at Dollimore and Christie's site near Stevenage (photo: Just Be A Child)

When Just Be A Child's first library opened, more than 700 members were registered in less than a week, and the children's thirst for books and knowledge shows no signs of waning. But it's not just youngsters who are benefitting from the libraries - Kenyan adult volunteers who help run the facilities are benefitting too. One, project coordinator Juma Mwakina Anthony, or Jay as he is known, says working for the charity has taught him skills including welding, metalwork, painting and carpentry - having never previously used tools such as a saw or hammer.

'Had it not been for our projects, I would have never had an interest in such activities, and the same goes for the majority of our community volunteers,' he explains. 'We all work as one team as the projects are a partnership between Just Be A Child and the community. Just Be A Child has brought literacy to different communities, as well as a place of solitude where one can be in a quiet atmosphere to read, and where children get their own time to play with toys and puzzles that train their minds to be creative.'

He recalls when a 16-year-old came to the library for the first time and said, 'This first time I see book', while clutching Thomas the Tank Engine tightly.

'He sits down, looks up with a grin, and says "teach me read please," Jay says. 'My heart swells with ache and pride. It is incredibly sad to know that there are children in the world who struggle to read but it is heartwarming to know that Just Be A Child, with the help of its supporters, is doing something about it - one library at a time.'

Volunteer Kenyan librarian Emmaculate Mwengi, 22, marvels at how far people are willing to travel to use the libraries and how the facilities have brought communities together, adding that they have 'improved hugely' performance and results at school.

Lenka admits the communities' expectations 'are both uplifting and scary'. She says, 'The biggest burden I face is my own sense of responsibility - to our donors and volunteers, but most of all to our communities. We need to demonstrate to our donors that we have a real impact on the lives of the children and community members we work with but we need to do so gently, gradually, and without forcing a change to happen.'

How you can make a difference

Just Be A Child is building a dedicated warehouse to store the increasing number of books as well as toys, games, stationery and furniture donated to the charity, thanks to a gift of land by Dollimore and Christie at its site near Great Wymondley. If you would like to provide practical or financial help to support its construction, call 07737 500501 or email info@justbeachild.com

The same contact details can be used for any individuals, groups or schools wishing to support the work of the charity through donations and volunteer action.

Latest from the Hertfordshire Life