Atare Agbamu walked into the school in southern Nigeria, impressed with all the learning space in the cinder block building, where some students board and others come for day classes.
But when Agbamu walked into the library, what he saw changed his life -- and continues to touch countless young West African lives to this day.
The shelves were bare.
"I know that we literally throw books away in America, and here is a library without books for kids to read," said Agbamu, a 54-year-old substitute teacher and author from Oakdale.
At that moment last summer in Ekpan, southern Nigeria, Agbamu promised the school's owner that he would send books.
So far, Agbamu has shipped more than 1,000 volumes, some from his personal library and many bought for about 15 cents each in recent months during books sales at the Goodwill thrift store in Stillwater.
"It's something I believe in," Agbamu said, referring to the used books that hold so little value for so many in the United States but are recycled treasures in his homeland.
"These are used books here, books that we throw away, but they are books that can change lives in Nigeria," he said.
"One idea from one book can dramatically change the trajectory of a life. As far as I'm concerned, this is about recycling our intellectual blessings. We are so blessed here, and there are people around the world who are not so blessed."
Astride two worlds
Agbamu is a bespectacled substitute teacher in Minneapolis as well as an author who has written about reverse mortgages. He sees himself as an American first, after living more than half of his life in the United States, but he also straddles two worlds, as a man born in West Africa.
Agbamu visited his boyhood home in Delta State, Nigeria, last summer after his mother died. There, his dream was born.
"By virtue of coming from Nigeria, I know that there's a world where there's a lot of need and want and people are suffering," he said. "This is just an individual response to a need that I perceived when I went home to bury my mother."
Agbamu gathers books from anyone who will donate, with the help of his wife, Efe Agbamu, who directs an English language program for St. Paul schools, and their 12-year-old daughter, Tejiri, a sixth-grade honor student at Skyview Middle School in Oakdale. They also have two sons away at college.
"This is very much a family endeavor," Atare Agbamu said, explaining that the family is sharing its blessings by stocking a library.
He also buys books at garage sales and stores them in his garage until he has enough to send a shipment.
Shipment in the works
Chinkelly Schools serve preschool through grade 12 students in Ekpan, Delta State. Agbamu's distant cousin, Veronica Ogbuagu, founded Chinkelly in 1992. The private Christian school's website states its mission: "The school was founded to nurture a new breed of Nigerians with discipline, positive character traits and coping skills that last a lifetime" as well as "a genuine desire for selfless service to humanity."
After his trip to Nigeria last summer, Agbamu returned to Oakdale on July 2. Within a week, he had shipped his first load of books. Three months later, Ogbuagu opened that shipment of 286 books. She called Agbamu, excitedly expressing gratitude:
"Thank you. God bless you, bless your family, bless your work, and everything you lay hands on and people you see," Ogbuagu said in her message.
Another shipment sent last fall will arrive soon.
"This school needs a first-class library," Agbamu said, "and I'm committed to doing everything I can to do that because kids need to have books to read."