Sunday, June 19, 2011

A library for Ulpiano Navarro primary school

For the past four years, we have had the great fortune to cooperate with HelpOneFuture, a non-profit organization founded by good friends of ours, in bringing the gift of books and reading to children in the Philippines. We had no intention of breaking this wonderful tradition, and the school our children were attending in Quichinche, called Ulpiano Navarro, presented the perfect opportunity.  

This school, like every other school in or around Otavalo (and in most developing countries), had no library. And unlike most kids in the United States and other similarly situated countries, these kids had no idea that there existed books written for enjoyment. The only books they had ever seen were textbooks. 

The Ulpiano Navarro school is led by a hard working, visionary director named Alexandra Armas. As she and our childrens' teachers worked patiently and tirelessly to help the kids adapt to new surrounding and a new language, our admiration for them grew. They had little in the way of materials, but worked hard and smart with what they did have. As Amy and I learned over the course of the months that we worked in and observed the school about the many deficiencies they dealt with, we realized that a library could be an amazing asset to their school and would benefit them for years to come. 

After talking the idea over with HelpOneFuture, we sat down with Alexandra and asked her what she thought about a library filled with books that children could read for pleasure. An initial feeling of skepticism (no school she had ever seen or attended had anything remotely similar) gradually turned to excitement as she realized the benefits that would flow from having a student body that not only actually liked to read, but excelled at it. 

While we worked on the fundraising side of things, Alexandra quickly took ownership of the project. She organized meetings with the faculty to discuss the project, planning where the library would be, how to integrate reading into the curriculum, brainstorming ways to raise even more funds, and ways to motivate the students. It was absolutely amazing to watch her take this project and run with it. With her at the helm, what started out as a family service project turned into legitimate education infrastructure.  

We hope that the pictures and commentary below give justice to what an amazing experience we had helping to build a library for the Ulpiano Navarro primary school. 

Here is a photo of the front of the school. You will note in this photo and in others that the paint on the school is in pretty good condition. This is because of a local tradition called the "minga," which is basically a community work day. The school or teachers will call a minga, and every parent is required to show up and pitch in to clean, repair, paint or anything else that needs to be done. 

Amy's parents, Joan and David Olsen, traveled to visit us early this year. David had gone to the local libraries in central California to look for used Spanish language books that the library was looking to get rid of. When they arrived, their luggage was stuffed with books. Here they are with Amy and Alexandra at a visit to the school.

Part of what the Tandana Foundation does is help to coordinate group projects in cooperation with universities and other groups from the US. One such group from Northeastern University (pictured below) was in Quichinche earlier this year. We also had wonderful help from a Carpe Diem gap year group and a group of Tandana healthcare volunteers. We also can't forget Anna Taft and Natalie Alm, another long term volunteer who helped a ton. They all volunteered and helped with the logistics of setting up the library, organizing books, entering in all the titles into a database and wrapping the books in protective plastic and organizing the checking out system. 

Early on, Alexandra had decided that the library needed a room of its own, not just a shelf or two in the office or a classroom, so that in time the book collection could grow and become even more a part of the school. She was able to acquire some funding from the nearby city, and joined it with the money she raised from the parents of school children and community through bake sales. They decided to build a smaller kitchen behind the school, and then convert the old kitchen, which was prominently placed in the middle of the school near the office, into the new library. This is a picture of the pre-library kitchen. 

Part of the remodeling effort included renaming the old kitchen. Here is the new "Biblioteca" sign, which of course means "library" in Spanish. A local woodworker did the cool design.  

We neglected to get pictures of the cleaning, sanding and painting, but it got done. The moms of the school donated their time and efforts to ours, and the walls were sanded and repainted, the floor scrubbed and the windows cleaned. We went with Alexandra down to Quito in search of books, because the kind of quantity we wanted didn't exist where we were. We spent a fun afternoon in the bookstore, more or less buying a copy of every single children's title they carried. We then scoured the nearby cities and found a few dozen more. All in all, we ended up with about 700 different books. We then bought plastic covering for the books and spent innumerable hours covering each book so that it would hopefully last for a while.We also had paper pockets and cards made that we glued into the back of the book, to use as a checkout system so that the older kids could take the books home to read. Those of you who went to grade school before the widespread use of computers will remember the old-school checkout system with names written down and due dates stamped in the books. Here we are working to get the books organized and prepared for the kids to read and checkout. 

We had ordered benches and a teacher's chair for the kids to sit in the library and read. Alexandra had found a local craftsman to build the bookshelves. A couple of weeks before the official opening, each class was brought into the library and given a session on what kind of books were in the library, how to treat books, and what the library rules were. They were all so excited. Here is Bentz's class, with the teacher reading them a book. Remember that these kids had never been in a library and surrounded by so many fun and interesting books. They absolutely soaked it in. 

We let each of the classes spend some time in the library, getting acquainted with the books and sitting down to read a bit. At first, we thought it a bit strange that the library was almost ready to go, but Alexandra wanted to wait until it was perfect, and then plan a formal opening ceremony. She wanted to invite the local government leaders, as well as officials from the provincial level education department. We didn't realize that this library would be the very first in the area, and the school was excited to share their experience with others.  

We had wondered whether or not kids who had not grown up with books everywhere and storytelling and libraries would catch on to the reading spirit, but we had nothing to worry about. Every kid who got close to the library promptly grabbed a book, sat down and lost themselves in the story. It was awesome. 

We wanted to make sure that the kids all new how to treat the books so that they would last for more than a couple of years. Alexandra suggested that all the students make posters depicting library rules. So each class, as they came in to get to know the new library, showed us the posters that they had created. 

Some of the books that David and Joan had been rounding up didn't quite arrive in time for their trip down to Ecuador. They sent the remaining books with Tarryn. Here are Tarryn and Alexandra. 

The big day of the library opening arrived, and it turned out to be much more that we had ever anticipated. They had put up a huge tent for guests to sit under, with a table up in front for the speakers and dignitaries. They had all of the kids gathered, and had prepared an entire program replete with musical numbers and speeches. Needless to say, we were a little overwhelmed. 

Here is one of the musical numbers, a traditional dance performed by some of the students. 

They also had speakers, including Amy and I. And contrary to what we would have wanted, they also made a  huge sign in the background. The kids worked really hard at it, so we couldn't really complain. 

Then there was the official ribbon cutting ceremony. I don't think that any of us had ever been to one before. 

Here we are with the provincial level education officials, taking them on a tour of the library. They were very impressed with all that had been done, and we explained that most of it had to do with the vision that Alexandra had for her school. We hope they give her a raise or a promotion or something. She deserves it. 

This poster on the wall is a little hard to see, but it consists of a timeline and pictures representing the evolution of the kitchen turned library. They were so proud of their accomplishment, and we are too. Our thanks and appreciation go out to the many friends that helped with this project through their generous donations and support. 


  1. Wow, what an amazing story. I can't imagine my childhood (or my life now) without libraries. These kids are so lucky you though of this idea. I love the photo of them getting right into reading.

  2. this is so wonderful you guys. what a meaningful experience. i don't have great words for how impressed I am. Just outstanding.