Book project for Ghana has definite Pittsburgh flavor

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When Peace Corps executive Sean Cantella took a tour Wednesday of a giant warehouse holding thousands of books in the West Africa port city of Tema, the last thing he expected to see amid a sea of brown cardboard boxes was a familiar ZIP code.

Yet there it was in all its hometown 15233 glory, stamped on carton after carton of boxes of reading and textbooks awaiting distribution.

They'd been shipped to Africa by Brother's Brother Foundation, "which is about two miles from where I grew up on Brighton Road," said Mr. Cantella, who after graduating John Carroll University went on to earn a master's degree from Katz School of Business at University of Pittsburgh.

Talk about your small worlds.

As director of programming and training for Peace Corps Ghana, the Brighton Heights native was in the warehouse to make contacts for 22 in-country volunteers who were interested in starting libraries in their adopted communities but unable to cover the costs without charitable partner. While Brother's Brother has collected and distributed some 96.5 million books at no cost to 50,000 schools worldwide since 1962, including 17 million to Africa, local distribution can be something of a challenge.

In English-speaking Ghana, where 2.8 million books have made their way in the last few decades, the cost of clearance alone -- that is, simply lifting one container off the ship and onto land -- is about $1,500, said Luke Hingson, Brother's Brother president.

"And that's before anything gets handed out," he added.

Enter the Rotary Club of Tema in the Greater Accra Region. Each year, the local arm of the international service organization covers the cost of getting six or seven containers filled with thousands of books cleared through customs, unloaded, sorted and trucked to local schools and community centers. Yet as Mr. Cantella discovered when talking with his good friend Ako Odotei, one of the first Ghanaians to study in the U.S. and a former Mexican War street resident, they don't have enough clients to distribute the books in a sustainable way.

"So I thought, if we could make local connections to help take 40 or so pallets off their hands, it could be really rewarding" for both sides, Mr. Cantella said.

Details of the partnership have yet to be ironed out, but to help raise money to distribute the books throughout Ghana, Mr. Cantella is in the process of applying to the Peace Corps Partnership Program, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. What's already been accomplished is a grateful shout-out to Brother's Brother.

"That local connection is very exciting," said Mr. Cantella, who this past weekend was visiting his parents in Hampton before heading to Washington, D.C., for a month of training at Peace Corps headquarters. He plans on visiting the charity's offices on Galveston Street later this month.

While he always was intrigued by people from different countries and cultures, Mr. Cantella didn't dream of being an international development worker while a student at North Catholic High School. His first airplane ride, in fact, didn't come until 1993, when as a new 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer, he was sent to the Senegal in West Africa to work in the small enterprise development sector. Something about living and working overseas hit a nerve, however, so after returning to the U.S. to work for the Reno-Gazette Journal in Nevada from 1996 to 1999, he found himself back in Conakry, Guinea, working for the global health organization Population Services International.

In 2005, he returned to the Peace Corps, this time landing in Bamako, Mali, where he helped run the West Africa Water Initiative, a program that provides potable water, sanitation and hygiene to rural villages in Ghana, Mali and Niger. Good works run in the family: His Dutch wife, Susan, whom he met in Senegal, does agricultural work with International Fertilizer Development Center.

Brother's Brother doesn't send just any books to the countries it serves overseas. Volunteers work with publishers to come up with a list of available titles and subjects, and then recipients get a chance to say yea or nay.

In Ghana, the most requested books are lower-level math, science and reading books, along with vocational books and dictionaries.

Gretchen McKay: or 412-263-1419.

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