DU Alumni / Magazine Feature / People

Alumna builds libraries in Ethiopia

For years, Janet Lee (MA library science ’78) had two separate interests: libraries (her profession) and Ethiopia (her Peace Corps past).

When she discovered how to combine her expertise in library science and her passion for Ethiopia, Lee found her ultimate role as a powerful advocate for Ethiopia Reads, a nonprofit that sets up libraries and literacy programs.

In August, Lee traveled to Ethiopia to help open Ethiopia Reads’ newest library and to see firsthand the program she successfully has championed in the United States.

Lee took her first library job at age 14. “Working at the library became a part of me,” says Lee, who is a technical services librarian at Regis University in Denver. “I’ve been working for libraries ever since.”

Her first connection with Ethiopia came in 1974, when she signed up as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“It couldn’t have been a more perfect country for me,” says Lee, explaining how living in Colorado helped her at home in the Ethiopian mountain ranges, altitude and cooler climate.

Lee taught English to high school students and was in the country during the reign and overthrow of Haile Sellasie.

Upon her return, Lee went back to library work, this time in the University of Denver’s Penrose Library, while she earned her master’s in library science.

But her thoughts still wandered to the African country. “Not a single day would go by that I did not think about Ethiopia.”

In 2006, she had her chance to return to Ethiopia with a medical team from Regis’ Rueckert-Hartman College of Health Care Professions.

“I felt like I was back home,” Lee says.

But still, her two loves — libraries and Ethiopia — were separate pursuits. Soon after returning from the 2006 trip, Lee learned about Ethiopia Reads. The kicker? Its U.S. headquarters was in Denver!

“This is too much, I kept thinking. How can this possibly be? That I would be a librarian and Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia and all along this organization was in my own backyard?” Lee says. “It was like my destiny was calling my name.”

Founded in 2003 by Ethiopian native Yohannes Gebregeorgis, Ethiopia Reads plants free libraries for children, creates reading materials in English and local languages, and trains teachers, librarians and caregivers to nurture a love of reading.

Lee became fast friends with Gebregeorgis and then became one of the organization’s greatest advocates. Apart from speaking, writing letters and fundraising, Lee used her networking skills to introduce Gebregeorgis to the American Library Association, the Colorado Association of Libraries and many other civic and educational groups for speaking engagements and fundraising activities.

Then, Lee helped garner international media attention for Ethiopia Reads when she nominated Gebregeorgis as a CNN Hero. A few months after submitting her nomination, a CNN crew was in Ethiopia interviewing and filming Gebregeorgis, who had won the award. After being chosen as one of 30 heroes, he was later selected as one of the top-10 heroes of 2008.

“Janet is ‘the patron saint of Ethiopia Reads,’ who has so passionately supported and advocated our work,” says Gebregeorgis, Ethiopia Reads’ executive director. “I’m amazed of all the things she has done. Her love for Ethiopia and our children is boundless.”

Ethiopia Reads now has four mobile libraries (book carts pulled by donkeys), two public libraries and 24 school libraries.

On Lee’s August trip to Ethiopia, she helped dedicate the newest library in the north Ethiopian city of Mekelle. The library was named in honor of Thomas Hooyman, a Regis colleague of Lee’s who caught her passion for the program and raised funds on its behalf. Sadly, Hooyman was killed in an accident last year before he could travel to Ethiopia.

Lee was in attendance to honor her friend and his commitment to the organization. She also helped assist with library training and activities.

“Her belief that literacy, reading and libraries as a means to effect social change in Ethiopia is what drives and motivates her to do everything in her power and reach,” says Gebregeorgis.

For more information, visit www.ethiopiareads.org.

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