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More than 500 members of the Church in the Potomac Virginia and Washington D.C. regions have joined hands across oceans and cultures to assist in a project that has already sent 180,000 text and library books to three African countries.

The books, donated by major publishers, will be used by knowledge-starved school students in Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone and Ghana. They have a market value in excess of $2.5 million.Pierce Campbell of the McLean Ward, McLean Virginia Stake, organized the project after a visit to the Bvute area of Zimbabwe. The reception he received as he visited an area school was overwhelming.

"Six hundred small faces smiled as they were lined up, row upon row, in the blazing noon-day sun," Campbell recalled. "The children from the school sang a greeting. The village elders had gathered, and long and profoundly elaborate welcomes were extended to us."

"The dignity and pride of these people," he continued, "touched our hearts. We were determined to help them if we could."

The Bvute School, like all rural schools in that country, consisted of small, barrack-like buildings of native clay mixed with straw, shaped into bricks and dried in the African sun. The school's water was carried by women of the village, in buckets on their heads, sometimes from as far away as 20 kilometers. In Zimbabwe there are 800,000 children to be educated in a school system built to accommodate 80,000.

Upon his return to the United States, Campbell went to work. He contacted Fredicka Donaldson of the Fairfax County (Va.) School Systems. She arranged for the school system to donate to the project used books that it no longer needed.

O. Ray Warner, who also lives in the McLean Virginia Stake, works with the U.S. Department of Education. He told Campbell of an organization that donated new textbooks from major publishers to worthy groups.

They were approached and asked if it would help the project. The answer was "yes" - in substantial numbers.

However, there were tax and legal stipulations that needed to be met. First, delivery had to be taken by an organization in the United States. Then, all books had to be unloaded, unpacked, stamped "Not For Resale," repacked, put into land-sea cartons and then shipped to a charitable organization in the African countries.

Other pieces came together. Africare, a non-profit agency in Washington, D.C., agreed to provide the cartons for shipment. And the National Farmers Association of Zimbabwe committed to help the Church assess each area's needs and assist with distribution.

But a tremendous amount of work still needed to be done to process the books and ready them for shipment. It would turn out that Campbell would have help - and plenty of it.

Members of the Church in the Washington area pitched in. The book processing started as a service project for singles wards, but soon grew to involve other wards as the word spread. It was not unusual for entire families to show up at the Tysons Ward meetinghouse in McLean, where the project was carried out.

Campbell was overwhelmed at the level of support. "There were times when 150 people came to help with the books," he said. "We were able to process 40,000 books in less than 2 1/2 hours one night because of this kind of support. We were offered help in so many ways."

There were times that assistance was mustered within an hour. Campbell recalled being called by George Bailey, custodian at the Tysons building, with news that a semi-truck was parked outside loaded with books. "These trucks had to be unloaded right away," said Campbell.

Campbell got on the telephone and contacted people he described as his "minutemen," because "they were willing to drop whatever they were doing to help."

The results of these efforts are tangible: About 120,000 books are on their way to Zimbabwe, and another 60,000 are en route to Ghana and Sierra Leone.

The benefits of these books to the children of Africa will be obvious. But this huge undertaking has also left its mark on the lives of people in the Washington area.

The project has helped lead to the baptism of at least one person: Sister Donaldson, the school official who helped arrange for the donation of used textbooks. She had been a longtime friend of the Campbell family, and had investigated the Church before, but was particularly touched by seeing so many Church members pitch in to help each other.

"It's great to be part of something tangible," said Campbell's son, Marc, who assisted his father in coordinating receipt and shipment of the books. "When you know that a little time and some sweat will cause something to happen that can help bring hope of a meaningful life, you don't mind a few aching muscles.

Dan and Alyssa Lloyd, also of the McLean Ward, spearheaded the stamping project. "It's been exciting for us to be involved in this kind of humanitarian effort."

"A mind is a terrible thing to waste," said Pierce Campbell in summing up his feelings about the books project. "We believe these books will be a window to the world for hundreds of thousands of children who will now have the tools to help with their education."