Vickroy: Niger wants your surplus, and even used, school supplies
By Donna Vickroy firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dvickroy January 30, 2013 4:38PM
Seen in a file photo from early January 2013, John Shattuck, center, a Frankfort businessman, is seen shaking the hands of a dignitary on recent visit with Children of Abraham to Niger. 3rd from right is Moutary Kalla, Secretary/President of Niger, Kingdom of Canton, who he travelled at the request of. Supplied photo
Updated: March 1, 2013 6:16AM
If you want to see what a difference education can make, take a look at two friends living in Africa, John Shattuck says.
Specifically, Niger, Africa.
Shattuck, a Frankfort businessman, recently returned from a nine-day tour of the West African nation as the guest of President Mahamadou Issoufou and his right-hand man, Moutari Kalla — best friends since they were children.
Issoufou and Kalla grew up dirt poor in the same region of the impoverished Third World country. They both talk about how they had to walk three to six hours a day just to attend a makeshift thatched schoolroom, often with little more than a chalkboard in the way of technology and supplies. But they persevered and to this day consider themselves lucky to have had the opportunity, Shattuck said.
The two men went on to graduate from college, determined to help deliver their country from despair. Together, they formed a democratic political party that took control two years ago and today runs the country.
“They realized that if you are educated, you can do great things, you can make great changes,” Shattuck said.
That philosophy is why they are determined to transform Niger’s typical schoolroom, which continues to be a thatched hut with little more than a chalkboard, into a more modern facility with books and pencils and paper. That is one of the reasons they invited Shattuck to visit their country.
Shattuck — a humanitarian who has mobilized legions of Chicago-area residents to donate shoes, clothes, books and musical instruments to other impoverished nations, most notably Haiti — now is on a mission to help Niger.
He’s collecting notebooks, pencils, markers and other school supplies, new or used.
“We’ll take those half-empty notebooks. We’ll take used crayons,” Shattuck said. “What ends up in landfills here will be treasured over there, where they have nothing.”
Shattuck is planning to fill a cargo container with school supplies and then ship it, along with another one he has filled with medical supplies, to Niamey, the capital of Niger.
Granted, most Southlanders likely know very little about Sub-Saharan Niger, although recent news reports that the United States plans to open a drone base in the country may spark some interest.
There is much turmoil in West Africa these days. Rebels are trying to take control in Mali and other countries, sending refugees into peaceful Niger, which struggles to keep the displaced nomads fed and cared for.
Shattuck aims to change that.
“This is a country that is crying out for an opportunity to have a relationship with us,” he said. “They need our help, and they believe they can help us.”
With newly discovered oil and some of the largest uranium deposits in the world, Shattuck said Niger should pique the interest of the American business community. It also should be on the radar of Western politicians because of the influential role the country plays in that region.
“They are friendly people who want to work with us,” Shattuck said. “And there are events that could happen in that region that could impact us here. We should care and learn about the area.”
Shattuck said people in Niger need basic supplies. And meeting basic needs is something the Richards High School graduate specializes in.
Shattuck is working with Children of Abraham, a Munster, Ind.-based nonprofit group that ships discarded medical supplies all over the world, sending needles, gloves, bed sheets and medications to places where the items basically don’t exist.
“Everything we send from COA is stuff that would end up in a landfill here, either because of expiration dates or liability issues,” he said.
Now Shattuck is hoping the people of the Southland will come forward with their leftover school supplies. He’s also looking for donations of books written in French, the official language of Niger.
During his visit, Shattuck visited a classroom that consisted of an empty space under a tree, on which hung a single chalkboard.
“To see kids walking hours to get to a tree because that’s their schoolroom is really humbling. They really want and value an education,” he said.
While he’s been working on filling the Niger-bound containers, Shattuck has also been reaching out to the local business community for help of a different kind. He has an unnamed Chicago-area benefactor who has agreed to fund a system of solar-powered wells in Niger, an investment that will likely run into the high six figures but has the potential to change the health of the entire country, he said.
“Clean water will eliminate the need for many medical supplies,” Shattuck said. “Right now the No. 1 cause of disease is water-borne illness. If we can mitigate that, we won’t need to send all these medical supplies.”
Getting the containers of goods into landlocked Niamey will be a challenge, Shattuck admits. The materials will first be shipped across the Atlantic and then driven overland through the tiny country of Benin.
With so much unrest in the region, Shattuck said, “We believe that will be the safest, fastest route.”
For the past three years, since they learned of Shattuck’s work, Niger officials have been asking him to consider working his humanitarian magic on their country.
Shattuck’s two sons met Kalla’s sons while attending a prep high school in New York. The boys remain close friends, and now their fathers are as well.
“I am determined to help these people who are desperately reaching out to us,” Shattuck said. “Can you imagine, the first words the president said to me when I met him in Niamey were, ‘I’m so sorry I couldn’t meet you yesterday, but there was a security issue in Mali.’
“Here’s the president of a country apologizing to me because a skirmish in the country next door required his attention,” Shattuck said. “That was the most humbling moment ever.”
To donate school supplies to the Niger campaign, call (815) 793-5935.