Local school books bound for Malawi
Art Rutkin, who served in the Peace Corps in the African country, wants to help students there
TIGARD - On a cold and rainy street outside the Tigard-Tualatin School District's Hibbard Administration Center, a cargo container was loaded with books Friday bound for subtropical Malawi in southwestern Africa.
The project is near and dear to the hearts of retired principal and current School Board Director Art Rutkin and his wife Lois, who served together in the Peace Corps in Malawi from 1964 to 1966.
'We taught in schools with almost no books,' Rutkin remembered, and he has worked tirelessly to collect books to send to the densely populated and landlocked country where the average annual income is $596.
'We started in March 2007,' said Rutkin on Friday, in between running back and forth between the flatbed truck holding the container and the storage room in the district headquarters where the books have been stored.
He was bringing water and food to the Tualatin High School CE2 students who were busy loading boxes of books in the storage room onto a forklift that carried them across the parking lot and street to the truck, where more students waited to load them into the container.
All this occurred under the watchful eye of a Department of Homeland Security agent, who was making sure that books were really being loaded into the container because Rutkin got a federal Defense Department grant to pay for the shipping.
Also on hand was the truck driver, who was ready to take off for Mobile, Ala., where the container will be loaded onto a ship bound for Africa.
Schools held book drives for the project, but Rutkin said that most of the books came after the school district adopted new language arts books, and the old ones became available last June.
'This shipment is mostly textbooks for kindergarten through 12th grade,' he said. 'The rest are soft-cover books. There's also paper, pencils, erasers, glue and other school supplies. We bought a lot at Target last summer during the back-to-school sales.'
He estimates that there are 900 boxes of books that weigh a total of 30,000 pounds. 'These books are in great shape,' he said. 'And English is the official language of Malawi, so the kids can really use them.'
Rutkin collected money for shipping the container, but thanks to the Defense Department grant, those funds can now be used by Peace Corps members to distribute the books throughout Malawi.
'That grant has been a Godsend,' Rutkin said. 'The money we raised will be used instead to hire lorries and drivers to distribute the books.'
Rutkin has not returned to Malawi since serving there in the 1960s, but he has worked with a group of retired Peace Corps volunteers called Friends of Malawi and used its tax-exempt status to receive donations for the book project.
Rutkin was invited to talk about the project to a TuHS CE2 class and ended up asking the students in the alternative-education and work-experience program to help load the books.
The books were ready to be shipped by the end of last summer, but Rutkin had to wait all fall to get the grant and also jump through a lot of hoops to meet all the shipping requirements.
'We had to get official statements from the Malawi government saying the books were duty-free,' he said. 'We had to get a group to accept the books. The U.S. Embassy in Malawi will accept them, and they will go into a U.S. AID warehouse, from where they will be distributed. I was ready to send them a long time ago, and what I needed the most was patience.
'The school district has been wonderful about letting us store them. When they get into the schools in Malawi, the books will be like gold.'
A typical Malawi classroom is huge with many students, according to Rutkin. In a biology class, for example, the teacher would carefully and precisely draw a frog on the blackboard for students to study since they do not have their own textbooks.
'These textbooks will be used daily,' he said. 'They will make a difference. We are sending about 22,000 books, and 20,000 of them are textbooks. Twenty thousand books will make a lot of difference.'
Rutkin also is looking ahead - the school district will be adopting new math and science books for middle and high schools next year and for elementary schools the following year.
'Math is math - it doesn't change,' Rutkin said. 'And we'll be able to send all those books to Malawi along with the teachers' manuals.'
And he might have picked up a new profession along the way as well.
'Now that I know what I'm doing, I could write a manual on how to do this,' Rutkin said. 'It's not magic.'