Yohannes Gebregeorgis, an American-educated native of Ethiopia, is up for CNN’s Hero of the Year award — an award that could garner Gebregeorgis and the program he founded $100,000


This story first appeared in the Nov. 19 edition of the Kansan.

LeAnn Clark of Hesston wants to get out the vote.

She is not asking for you to vote for a politician but for a humanitarian.

Clark is a local volunteer for the Ethiopia Reads program, and she has been involved in helping collect tons of books for the program from students, educators and others in the United States for children in Africa.

Yohannes Gebregeorgis, an American-educated native of Ethiopia, is up for CNN’s Hero of the Year award — an award that could garner Gebregeorgis and the program he founded $100,000.

Clark said she hopes people will get online at cnn.com and vote for Gebregeorgis. There is a “HEROES” link at the top of the page to view profiles of the candidates and vote.

Gebregeorgis became eligible for the prize by being picked as one of the Top 10 Heroes of the Year by a CNN Blue Ribbon Panel, according to the CNN Web site.

According to the Web site, more than 75,000 people already have voted in the contest. The deadline for voting is 6 a.m. ET Thursday.

Gebregeorgis learned to read in a village school taught by Peace Corps volunteers.

However, he was forced to leave school at an early age and enter the Ethiopian Navy. Only 28 percent of children in his home country have the opportunity to receive any formal education, and books are in short supply, Clark said.

Those students who are lucky enough to get to go to school only go half days because of school overcrowding.

On the Ethiopia Reads Web site, Gebregeorgis said he still remembers the first book that was given to him when he was 19.

Clark said the experience changed his life.

When war broke out in Ethiopia, Gebregeorgis was forced from his homeland into a refugee camp in Rwanda.

He eventually made his way to the United States, where he received a master’s degree in library science from the University of Texas.

Gebregeorgis began working at the San Francisco Public Library in the children’s department. He tried to purchase books in his native language for the Ethiopian population who lived in the city but found there was a lack of books in his native language available.

Gebregeorgis became involved with author Jane Kurtz, formerly of Hesston, who grew up in Ethiopia, where her parents worked. Kurtz encouraged friends and family to help Gebregeorgis publish “Silly Mammo,” a children’s book of Ethiopian tales in English/Amharic. Funds raised from the publication went to help start the Ethiopia Reads program.

Gebregeorgis returned to Ethiopia where he started a free library for children. Since its creation in 2003, the library has received more than 60,000 visits from children.

In addition, 14 school libraries also have been created by the Ethiopia Reads program.

Clark, the publications chairwoman for the Kansas Reading Association, has helped coordinate U.S. book collection for the library projects in Ethiopia. All the books going to Ethiopia Reads from the United States come through Hesston, including many books that have been donated through local schools, including Newton.

Several shipping containers of books, accounting for tons of reading material, have been sent oversees from American donors since the project began.

AGCO also has been in on the act, allowing Ethiopia Reads, to use its empty trucks to carry books to Minneapolis for eventual shipment out of the country.

Clark has been able to visit Ethiopia and said her heart is lightened to see the donated books lining the shelves of the Ethiopian schools.

“I think, ‘Wow, those books would not be there if the members had not made those donations,’” she said. “It was a humbling experience. Ethiopia Reads is creating a culture of literacy and change for the lives of a generation of Ethiopians.”

As for Gebregeorgis’ hero status, Clark said she thought he was very deserving of the CNN award and hoped people would support him and his cause in the contest.

“To have the desire to go back after what had happened to him ...,” Clark said. “It is amazing what he has been able to do in the last five years.”

For anyone wishing to donate new or gently used books to Ethiopia Reads, contact Clark at (620) 327-2310.