The cardboard mountain was daunting: Seven hundred and seven boxes. Inside: 29,801 books.
And for more than 50 volunteers the challenge was to pick them up and load them into a shipping container bound for a pier in Manhattan - where they would depart for Africa and then a truck ride to Hosanna, a rural town in southern Ethiopia.
The woman responsible for the project - delivering books to communities that have never had a library - is Helen Boxwill, whose first visit to Ethiopia came in 2003, shortly after she retired as principal of Southdown Primary School in Huntington. She spent a year there training teachers through the International Foundation for Education and Self-Help, working in schools where students had no learning materials.
"They have so few resources, yet they care about education and are trying as hard as they can," says Boxwill, 64. "They understand that the key to getting out of extreme poverty is education. When I asked the teachers what they needed most, they said books and a library."
So when she returned to her Huntington Station home in 2004, she made it her goal to help the teachers get their library. In 2006 she started a nonprofit organization called h2 Empower, dedicated to improving lives in Africa through education and sustainable development. With grants from a grass-roots development assistance program at the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia and from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington, as well as $4,000 donated by parents of children in Hosanna - where the income averages $1 a day - ground was broken in February for the Hosanna Community Library.
Boxwill, who attended the ceremony, said she hopes it will become a community center "to make learning accessible to everyone."
For two years she has been collecting books of fiction and nonfiction for all ages from churches, schools and libraries and storing them on the grounds of the Smithtown Historical Society, which donated the space.
Boxwill said individuals have made donations, too, among them Jeremy Schneck of North Shore Hebrew Academy High School in Great Neck, who contributed 100 boxes of new books collected through the nonprofit organization he started, Reading Reflections; and a doctor who donated medical books that will go to the hospital and a nursing school in Hosanna.
Several schools held book drives, she said, including Westbury, Walt Whitman, Half Hollow Hills West and Freeport high schools, as well as Accompsett (Smithtown), Stimson (South Huntington), Robert Moses (North Babylon) and Elwood middle schools. A fourth-grade class at Old Bethpage Elementary School raised $1,200 by making and selling lanyards in the colors of the Ethiopian flag (green, yellow and red).
Every few weeks volunteers helped sort, count and catalog the donations in Boxwill's living room and at the Smithtown Historical Society. And on Nov. 13 volunteers from Walt Whitman, Smithtown West, Northport and Central Islip high schools and the Unitarian Fellowship arrived to do the heavy lifting.
On Dec. 27 the container with 707 boxes on board is due to arrive in Hosanna, and 9,041 of the books are to be delivered to the new Community Library. The remainder are expected to be used to start small libraries in every school in the town.
Marilyn Kopp-Hecker of Huntington, a member of the h2 Empower board, credited Boxwill with the project's success. "She envisions bigger than the rest of us do, and she manages to pull it off," she says. "The odds are daunting when you're organizing something of this scale for a country so far away. But because Helen has become part of the community in Ethiopia, she's inspirational to everyone involved here and there."
Boxwill said she has spoken at numerous schools on Long Island "about what I'm doing and why . . . There's so much for our kids to learn, like what life would be like if you live in another country where girls can't always go to school because they have to walk miles with a container to get water for their families. And where a primary school of 2,500 students has only 10 books."
To learn more about h2 Empower, visit h2empower.org.