Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Community Library Project Beginnings

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2010 is over and it was officially the most challenging and eventful year of my life. Finding my way in a small Paraguayan community was no easy feat. Even after a year and a half, I still learn new things every day and still have days when I yearn for home. (Last week I learned that in Paraguay your cousin’s kids are called your nieces and nephews, no wonder everyone is related!) Although difficult at times, my experiences in Paraguay have also been very rewarding and I wouldn’t want to come home a minute too soon.

Since I moved to Jose Fassardi 16 months ago I immediately became aware of the overall poor quality of education in the elementary schools and high schools. Students have no access to books or educational materials besides the old and basic textbooks in the classroom. Therefore, the four hour Paraguayan school day is mostly spent by students copying notes from the blackboard which the teachers copy from a textbook. Students memorize these notes and then regurgitate it back for exams. The lack of classroom materials has led to the lack in development of critical thinking skills. Further encouraged by the dictatorships’ leftover legacy that discourages individuality and encourages one’s ability to blend in and be one of the crowd, students do not learn nor are they encouraged to think for themselves.

When I have observed classes or given guest lectures my general experiences have been frustrating because classrooms are run so differently than how I am used to. Students are disrespectful to their teachers (especially the boys, it is uncool to learn!) which causes the teachers to yell back insulting remarks back, not a very positive learning environment to say the least. Students from other classes are disruptive too. They come in and out as they please and peer in the windows and shout distracting comments. Students get up and leave whenever they want, hand in their homework or complete an in-class assignment only if they feel like it. The boys choose to sit in a cluster in the back of the class and ignore everyone else and on some occasions the girls will work on the assignment and all copy off one another or clump together and gossip.

Also, when students are asked a question they are generally terrified into silence. Students never want to answer a question or participate in class. They look at each other’s papers to make sure they all did the assignment the same way. This isn’t considered cheating. I have so often received 17 identical papers handed in. But can you really blame them? They were never taught to think for themselves. Creativity and individuality is not valued as it is in our culture.

I am not sure how anything gets accomplished in this kind of environment during a four hour school day, which often ends early or doesn’t happen at all when it rains or even looks like it might rain. Paraguayan children must miss more school than any other kids on the planet due to weather and holidays. Kids who live far from school and must walk several miles to and from school along dirt roads are trapped in their homes when it rains, the dirt roads turn into impassable river. In the winter kids find it too cold to leave the house to attend school and in the summer it is too hot. It’s a crying shame!

But don’t get discouraged yet, a beacon of hope shines in the educational system in Fassardi, her name is Myriam Ramierz. She is my community contact. She is the principal of the technical high school, one of two high schools in the center of town. She runs her small school with a little bit of discipline and lot of encouragement, two unique qualities found in a Paraguayan educator. Her students are proud to be students at her school and come from neighboring towns every day to attend. These students actually care about their education because Myriam gives them a reason to care. Fridays are all day classes. She does not accept tardiness, absences, and misbehavior. She has a strict discipline policy and classes usually run smoothly. My neighbors, both students at the technical high school, often discuss with me topics they have learned in class. They ask me for help on assignments, ask me to look up things on the internet for them when I go to town, buy them books , help with their English homework etc…They could definitely benefit from a community library.

The youth in Fassardi are under stimulated, to say the least, and are forced to look for it elsewhere. They spend their volumes of free time mostly doing nothing, watching TV (soap operas and dubbed Disney Channel shows. Hannah Montana is a huge hit), sitting and people watching, and cruising the new paved road on their motorcycles. Up and down, up and down. There are no organized sports, activities or events for youth, besides the one I organize.

During the winter break in July I hosted a geography camp for kids. It was two days of educational games and fun about the whole wide world! I learned after painting the world map that Paraguayan kids and adults alike are terribly uneducated about the world outside the small town of Fassardi. I decided on a geography camp to make use of the map and offer some knowledge. By the end of the camp, the kids could identify all of the oceans and the continents; they could find Paraguay, the United States and many other FIFA World Cup countries on the world map. Kids were no longer asking me if I took the bus or my bike to get to Paraguay from the United States. They started to appreciate the distance and space of the big, wide world. Kids were no longer asking me what was below Antarctica on the map. However, the second day of camp my boyfriend brought two friends visiting from Australia which ended up terribly confusing the children and to this day, six months later, children still ask me if I am from Australia. But we made some progress…

Can you imagine not growing up with books in your home? As American children we loved books! How different would bed time have been without Good Night Moon, The Hungary Caterpillar, The Giving Tree, or Where The Wild Things Are? Classic books and a classic American childhood. Paraguayans rarely have books in their homes, maybe a rare dictionary or some religious literature. I have heard stories from other volunteers who had to teach kids how to turn pages in a book because they had never held a book before.

Last year I wrote a blog about Fassardi as a town of contradictions, a town stuck between the past and the future. (I believe I wrote this when the main road was paved last December). Fassardi, like many rural Paraguayan towns, is struggling with the classic battle of tradition vs. modernity. With last year’s paved road came easy access for Fassardi citizens to one of Paraguay’s most modern cities, Villarrica, only an hour away. Villarrica is full of internet cafes, public and private universities, electronic stores, and shops galore. The modern world is slowly coming to Fassardi along its paved road and Fassardians are drinking it in. Fassardians are becoming more and more aware of the value of an education. Families, if they have the means, are starting to send their kids to university more often than to find work once they finish high school. Older generations are beginning to see that an education can lead to a prosperous career. This is a VERY new concept to come to rural Paraguay.

So, we have the first most important and most challenging concept covered. Most Fassardians already understand the importance of education, but they lack the resources or the know how to improve it. A community library is the best and most efficient way to easily serve the educational needs of the whole community. It will be a place where students, from kindergarten to high school seniors, students commuting to the universities, and adults can come to research school assignments, use the computers, print out documents, research professional and personal interests, or learn to read for fun. The library will serve as a public meeting place for students to gather, parent meetings etc… It will be a full service multi-media center for the public of Jose Fassardi, something they have never had before!
The library will be located at the technical high school in the center of town. Once up and running the library will have six large book shelves filled with Spanish language books, two computers, two printers, two computer desks, tables and chairs sets for adults and children, office supplies, curtains, and educational materials decorating the walls We are starting small but have high hopes the library will continue to grow for years after my departure. I have requested a follow-up volunteer to take my place in Fassardi in August to continue working with the library and the community.

Some of our future goals include accessing the internet, securing funds from the municipality for a full-time librarian, and continuing to solicit donations from local and international organizations to pay for more books, computers ,and other multi-media technology.

I have been working actively on this project for the past several months with the principal of the technical high school, Myriam, and a youth commission. Myriam and I have formed a very close working relationship and friendship. I spend holidays with her family and teach her two young children English. She is very active in the community and passionate about improving education in Fassardi. She and I have written countless letters to local NGOs soliciting book donations. So far we have received boxes of donations from El Centro Cultural de Espana in Asuncion, ABC Color and Ultima Hora (both newspapers), we are still waiting to hear from the American Embassy. We continute to write more letters. We have also received several donations from a few US based organizations that have shipped books to me in Asuncion.

Myriam and I submitted two grants to help support the library project effort. One is the Peace Corps Partnership grant that I have been advertising on this blog and by email to all my friends and family. This grant is funded completely by online donations. Peace Corps has established the “Partnership” grants in an effort to get Americans involved in Peace Corps projects. It doesn’t just take one volunteer, me, to build a library, it take a whole community and all my friends and family to get involved. This grant totals almost $2,500 and more than half the money will pay for books. This grant will specifically pay for a set of table and chairs designed for children ($76), A librarian’s Desk ($54), Security Bars for 6 windows and 1 door ($260), A variety of office supplies including folders, a door lock, paper for printers, curtains and curtain rods, fabric to protect the computers, ink cartridges, trash can and broom, etc.. ($200).

We also submitted and were approved for a Small Project Assistance grant with Peace Corps for $3,000. We will receive the funds in a few weeks, once the check is signed and sent from Washington. This was very exciting news! This grant will pay for most of the furniture, the two computers and printers, and more books.

Part of the requirement for these grants to be accepted is a contribution from the community. The youth commission has been raising funds for books themselves by organizing activities for children in the community. So far we have had two movie days hosted at the municipality. I borrowed a projector from a doctor in Villarrica and bought a few bootleg DVDs, we bought a lot of snacks and sodas to sell along with the entrance fee and had a very good turnout at the first event. Like I said before, there is nothing for kids to do here, so watching a movie on a big screen in the air conditioned municipality was a treat.

Also, the community is paying for the electricity and water bills, the parents commission is going to spruce up the place this summer by repainting and fixing the cracks in the floors where it always floods during the big storms. The building already has ceiling fans installed (a must!) and light fixtures. The school will also be donating a dry erase board and one book shelf that currently holds the schools entire library.

Luckily, many of the donations I have already received are children’s books. Therefore, while we await our financial donations I plan to host a kids reading camp to promote literature and teach kids that reading can be fun. I know many volunteers have tried this kind of event in the past and they have been very successful. Kids are drawn to books like moths to a flame if you just give them the opportunity.

Once the library is functional I also plan to give lectures at all the schools about the library and its benefits. I will also offer free computer classes for anyone who is interested. Fassardi has a computer center but classes are expensive and therefore only available to the well-off. (Computers are still an inaccessible luxury for most in rural Paraguay). I will also host my English classes in the library and offer after hours tutoring sessions and will encourage other teachers to do so as well.
We are well on our way to getting this library project off the ground. I am super excited and just hope we can raise all the necessary funds. Getting the money raised is just the beginning , the real work will start once we have everything purchased, installed and up and running.

I plan to keep you updated on this blog about the progress of the library, so check for updates!

Here is the link again to donate:

The kids of Fassardi appreciate every dollar you can donate to our library project!

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog and my project. It truly means so much to me.

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