by Bill Cartwright, president and CEO of the Riecken Foundation
Four-year-old Elena is bilingual, speaking her native Quiché as well as Spanish. Home for Elena is a very remote village in central Guatemala by the name of Xolsacmaljá, in the department of Totonicapán. Elena probably won't ever know her father as he, along with many of the men in her village, is in the United States working long hours so that he can send money home to the family that he hasn't seen for several years. Two years ago, however, after five years of planning and negotiation by the community leaders, a miracle happened in Elena's village: a library full of books, toys, games and computers opened its doors.
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How One Great Idea Became 64 Libraries
A dozen or so years ago, illustrator Susan Riecken, and her social entrepreneur husband, Allen Andersson, started pondering their retirement and knew that they wanted to transform their success into help for the less fortunate. From his Peace Corps days Allen was familiar with many of the needs of remote Central America: food, medicine, schools, fertilizer, honest government, and good jobs.
'What travels cheapest over a hundred miles of bad road, then multiplies its value every time it is used?' Allen asked. Barely pausing, he answered his own question: 'Information.' Thus the idea for what today is a network of 64 libraries in Honduras and Guatemala was born.
All over the world, most rural libraries in developing countries perish early from neglect. The Riecken Foundation determined that theirs would succeed. That meant keeping them independent, keeping them free to all, and training both librarians and visitors in the possibilities of a community information center. Over the years, Riecken learned from experience that the key to a successful library is strong community governance. Every Riecken library must begin with a board of trustees drawn from all sectors of the community. It must be supported (but not controlled) by the local government.
In 2007 another library opened its doors in San Juan Planes, Copán, Honduras. Today, that library is open and full every day and is staffed entirely by community volunteers. The local 'junta' (board) that oversees the library's operations has gone on to develop a clean water project for the village of some 2500 inhabitants. Volunteers from this library routinely mount up and deliver books to seven even more rural communities by horseback.
What's Next for Riecken
There is no dearth of evidence that early childhood stimulation leads directly to educational success, thus a current focus of the Riecken Community Libraries is supporting early childhood development. Other programs include nutrition counsel, story hours in both Spanish and local indigenous languages, youth groups, book clubs, debate teams and the publication of legendary Mayan stories handed down orally by grandparents.
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