As of yesterday, more than 400,000 books, culled from school districts across Virginia, are heading for Liberia, the west African country where over two decades of bloody civil conflicts have left the nation's school system among the rubble.
"We got 120,000 books from Loudoun, 40,000 from Prince William, about 50,000 from Fairfax," Del Walters said yesterday, walking through a warehouse near Dulles International Airport, where nearly 50,000 books were being loaded into a 40-by-10-foot steel container. They will arrive in Liberia on Aug. 22, following three other containers that should arrive in the next few days.
"We have a chance to rebuild their school system," said Walters of Leesburg, a news anchor for Baltimore's WMAR-TV. "I can't think of a better model than the school system in Virginia."
He said nearly 50 Virginia school systems offered used or new books to the Books Without Borders project, begun by Walters's daughters: Taylor, 17, and McClaine, 14, both avid readers.
"My French book from last year is just on the other side," Taylor said, pointing to a mountain of books being forklifted.
"It's one thing to get the books from the schools," Walters said. "It's an entirely different project to get them across the ocean." He said even more books were waiting in a Richmond warehouse.
Spanish, history and writing textbooks, as well as poetry and prose by Ovid, Langston Hughes and mystery writer Patricia Cornwell, will be crossing the Atlantic.
"We'll leave it up to the schools to pick what they want," Walters said. Editing the selection would have been too political, and exhausting, he said.
Their Books Without Borders project began when Walters returned in January from Liberia, where he had been working on a video documentary about the country.
"Africa has become so invisible to African Americans," Walters said. The widening distance is especially unnerving, he said, when it comes to Liberia, a country that was founded by freed African American slaves in the 19th century. "Liberia is America's cousin. You see it in the architecture, you see it in the people's faces."
Taylor said there was one scene among the footage her father gathered for the documentary that became an unshakable tableau: a young Liberian girl standing alone in the bombed-out ruins of a building, with sheets of paper strewn across the debris.
"When I saw all the papers on the ground, I thought they must have been books at one point," Taylor said. "I couldn't imagine my life without books."
A family friend later mentioned a project she was involved with that had sent books to schoolchildren in Jamaica, and the girls' idea began to take shape. With their father's introduction to Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and Belle S. Wheelan, the state's secretary of education at the time, the girls launched the project.
"I thought it was a wonderful idea," Wheelan said. "It's a country hungry for education."
The Virginia National Guard, Virginia Trucking Association and church groups crisscrossed the state over the summer to pick up the books; Walters and his daughters traveled in their own 26-foot trailer. The books are earmarked for 150 public, private and parochial schools in a country where just over half of the population over the age of 14 can read and write.
A book called "America of the 20th Century" sat on a pile next to Walters as a forklift approached.
"My dream," he said, "is to one day send them books about their own country's history."