January/February 2011 A Visit With

Leading through reading
Shannon McNamara of Basking Ridge is the kind of teenager who makes you slap your forehead and say, “Wow!” For her many community service projects, McNamara, 17, a senior at Ridge High School, has collected a bundle of prestigious awards, including the worldwide Youth Achievement Recognition at the United Nations in New York City. Her latest is the nationwide Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes, awarded to McNamara for starting SHARE, an after-school girls’ reading program in Tanzania. Petite and soft spoken with a ready smile, McNamara is a young lady who is quietly determined. There’s something about her that makes you just know she’ll continue to make a difference.

I think we need a world map to keep up with you. Travel seems to be your middle name.
My whole family is like that — my mom, dad, older sister and brother. We all love adventure and new places. When I was little we lived in Ireland and New Zealand. We all go on volunteer service trips together. When I was 12 we went to Peru to teach English to kindergarten children, at 13 I worked in an elementary school in Costa Rica, and now we’re involved with my SHARE program in Tanzania.

What does SHARE stand for, and what’s it all about?

SHARE stands for Shannon’s After-school Reading Exchange. It’s a program just for girls, where they can enjoy reading, get reading help, do word games and puzzles, borrow books and generally improve their English.

How did you happen to start SHARE?
My parents always told me that we won the “birth lottery,” that we were privileged and lucky to live in a country where we have so much freedom, where I’m free to use my own voice. And because of that we have an obligation to do what we can to help others improve their situation.

So you’re part of a family tradition of community service. But why Tanzania?

In 2008 I needed a significant service project for my Girl Scout Gold Award. That’s the Girl Scout equivalent of Eagle Scout. As it happened, my family was going to Tanzania through a program called Global Citizens Network, so I began collecting children’s books and school supplies. I wanted to start a reading program for girls and create a library. And we did. My family and other volunteers helped me. In Bukoba they gave us a dilapidated schoolroom. We painted it, rehabbed it, made bookshelves. I had to convince the Girl Scouts that working in Africa would count as community service.

Since then the project has expanded a lot. We started with 23 girls and the motto, “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.” We eventually collected about 24,000 donated books and we now have four libraries at four different schools and four reading programs for girls. My friends came over to help sort books. We had books all over our house at one point. We pay local teachers to stay after school and on weekends so the girls can practice their reading skills. And our libraries are open to the community.

Read more of the interview in the current issue of New Jersey Countryside Magazine, available now at bookstores, on newsstands and by subscription. Click here to get one free bonus issue and save more than 80% on a subscription.