TRAVERSE CITY — Paul Sutherland orchestrates talent and treasure to create a better world.

Getting 25,000 books into the hands of South African children impacted by COVID-19 is just his latest effort.

The founder of the Traverse City-based nonprofits the Utopia Foundation and Squaring the Education Pyramid Institute (STEPi), Sutherland has choreographed resiliency projects from northern Michigan to Nepal.

During the depths of the pandemic, he observed children locked down in poverty-stricken areas of South Africa were in need of hope, kindness and a learning boost. Sutherland responded by coordinating the Utopia Foundation with Nelson Mandela University, primary schools and volunteers to develop and implement the Book Bag Project.

President of the Financial & Investment Management Group, Ltd in Traverse City, Sutherland’s idea quickly sprouted when he connected with the University Convergence Fund created in 2020 to address socio-economic issues intensified by the pandemic and in aligned with the institution’s commitment to social justice.

“I sent a little email thinking nothing would come of it,” Sutherland said. “It turned into something bigger than we imagined.”

At a time when many nonprofits focused on providing immediate material relief, Utopia’s partnership with the University changes the story for 10,000 children of 13 primary schools by planting seeds of literacy.

“If you fall in love with books you can learn to read, then read to learn,” Sutherland said.

The Book Bag Project consists of eight books Sutherland authored to foster character, resilience and relationship intelligence. They message courage, justice, values and virtues.

“They’re colorful books, very vibrant and engaging,” said Utopia Foundation Executive Director Karla Cordero. “They call to the reader.”

Community talent and energy shaped the ground effort. The book bag was designed by university students. Books were printed locally and illustrated by an area artist. Three informational and inspirational inserts were produced in English and Xhosa by the university Learning and Teaching Department staff for inclusion in the bags. Bags were hand-packed with two books per bag.

The ongoing pandemic called for adapting the original goal of delivering bags personally to each child, reading to them and looking them in the eye.

“One on one — it’s the essence of everything,” Sutherland said. “All in life is relationship. We forget that.”

Teachers instead will make the presentation to the Port Elizabeth area’s participating school students. Classrooms and school libraries each receive a full set of Sutherland’s books to bolster their limited educational resources.

“Since day one everyone has been excited,” Cordero said. “It’s not only empowering for children and teachers, but also for the team doing this. It’s special working collaboratively.”

Cordero said the project is made possible by anonymous donations.

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