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Nonprofit takes on Liberia's 'other crisis'

Much is made of the fact that the Baltimore region has no Fortune 500 companies — and only a few in the Forbes 1000 — but you hardly ever hear anyone brag about the number of international do-good organizations with headquarters here. Let me name a few:

Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Lutheran World Relief and, separately, World Relief. There's also Jhpiego, affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University and dedicated to women's health, plus International Orthodox Christian Charities, IMA World Health, International Youth Foundation, American Hindu World Service.

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I realize these are all nonprofits and, in the minds of some, they are not productive in the classical sense and therefore do not count when it comes to being factors in the regional economy.

But, of course, these organizations employ Marylanders and many other staffers in dozens of countries. Most importantly, they help millions of poor, sick and impoverished people around the world, including the Ebola-stricken countries in West Africa. That they do this from Baltimore should be a gleaming point of local pride.

Recently, I came across another Baltimore-based nonprofit — nowhere near as large as those I've mentioned, but certainly international in its reach. It's called the International Book Bank, and it operates out of an office and warehouse in what I call Hampdenberry, between Hampden and Woodberry. The IBB is on Buena Vista Avenue near 41st Street.

The organization formed in Chicago in the 1980s, but moved to Baltimore in 1991 because of the port. Every year IBB ships reading, science and math textbooks and children's story books to dozens of countries. In fact, since 1987, IBB has shipped more than 25 million books to other do-good organizations in Africa, Asia, Central America, Europe and South America. Those partner organizations literally pay the freight while IBB collects and stores the books and prepares them for shipping.

The nonprofit has an interesting operational model — it ships only new books donated by publishers, authors or book distributors, and it allows its overseas partners to select titles from a cloud-based inventory, guaranteeing that books will be properly vetted for their cultural acceptance in destination countries.

IBB's current mission: Get books to Liberia, the country hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak and where the schools have been closed since summer with no clear plan for providing alternative education to children. IBB is gathering books for a large shipment this month out of the port of Baltimore.

"Thousands of Liberian children are currently out of school, quarantined in their homes, and will be for the foreseeable future," says Brigid McDonnell, who runs the program here. "Going months without access to education, particularly books, these students will face the serious effects of interrupted education. We're calling this the other Ebola crisis. … It's similar to what we know in the U.S. as the 'summer slide,' except [the Liberian children] will be facing nearly a year without school, stuck in book-starved homes with parents and family members who have had limited educational opportunities, if any."

The official language of Liberia is English. Some day soon, IBB hopes to fill a 20-foot cargo container with 50,000 books for shipping to Monrovia, the capital city. There, a partner organization called We-Care Library will sort the books and handle distribution. McDonnell says the couple who runs We-Care Library, Mike and Yvonne Weah, plan to hand-deliver books, copybooks, pencils, and Ebola health fliers to quarantined homes. The idea is to get this done before Christmas.

So IBB is in the process of raising money for the Liberian effort — about $20,000 for the shipping. This is an unusual circumstance, McDonnell explains, because the charity on the receiving end, We Care Library, is much smaller than IBB's other freight-paying partners, such as Catholic Relief Services.

So far, she said, IBB has about half the funds needed for the project, a good chunk of it from CODE, a Canadian organization that has promoted literacy around the world for 55 years. (CODE was an original partner of IBB when the latter started negotiating with American publishers for book donations.)

McDonnell is one of four paid staffers in Baltimore; IBB tries to keep overhead as low as possible, she said. But each year this tiny organization sends between 1.5 million and 2 million books overseas.

That's got to be making a difference. Here's just one story:

About 12 years ago, one of the IBB books ended up in the hands of William Kamkwamba, a young man in Malawi, in southeastern Africa. His poor, drought-stricken village had no electrical power. From a science textbook that IBB had sent to Malawi, Kamkwamba learned how to make a windmill from parts of bicycles and other scrap, and he succeeded in generating electricity from it. He later built a solar-powered water pump for his village. Kamkwamba became an international celebrity with the publication of his book, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind." And this year he received a degree from Dartmouth College.

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Dan Rodricks' column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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