Hungering for the next necessity: knowledge

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“Hungering for the next necessity: knowledge” by Pat Bray, contributing write for the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca newsletter

Many in Chacraseca still remember when they had no light to read by. That was little more than two decades ago.

With basic survival needs such as running water and electricity finally a reality for many, people began hungering for the next necessity: knowledge.

In this poor community of subsistence farmers and artisans near León in northwest Nicaragua, a solar-powered lending library is taking shape in a clearing near the health clinic and church in the center of the 49-square-mile community. The Richard Streb Memorial Library, a San Juan del Sur Library in a Box recipient, will open in February 2014. Mobile services to area schools also will begin next year.

“It is amazing to even be thinking about a project like this,” says Michael Cipoletti, co-founder and director of Friends New England, the nonprofit foundation spearheading the project. “When my high school began working in Chacraseca in 1992, less than 20 percent of the community had electricity. Water was pulled from artesian wells. High school education was rare. The library signifies that life is improving in Nicaragua, that people are now able to think beyond the next meal or how long it will take to draw water.”

Three San Juan del Sur Biblioteca representatives, volunteer coordinator Heather Caraway de Vega, staff member Esau Vega, and volunteer Noah Brookman, traveled to Chacraseca for the September groundbreaking, delivering books and helping with cataloging and training. In this place where time seems to stand still, there is little entertainment, according to the volunteer coordinator. “The thought of a library has everyone, even miles away, super excited!” she says.

Richard Streb Library Manager, Lourdes Ojeda Hernandez cataloging books with San Juan del Sur staff volunteer Easu Vega.
Richard Streb Library Manager, Lourdes Ojeda Hernandez cataloging books with San Juan del Sur staff volunteer Esau Vega.

Peter White, now retired as a social studies teacher at Northport High School, Long Island, New York, founded Students for 60,000 (SF60K) at the school in 1986, initially to help New York City’s homeless people. Its Chacraseca projects—100 concrete-block and tin-roofed homes, a school, a health clinic and a community center, chickens, cows, tractors, plows, medical supplies, food, and land for farming—are only part of the group’s achievements.

During one or two yearly work trips to Chacraseca, SF60K volunteers live with local families, which gives them insight into the community’s needs. Cipoletti was one of the students White brought to Nicaragua after Dick Streb convinced him to visit the impoverished country, and White is still making service trips with Friends of Students for 60,000, another group White founded. That group and a Nicaraguan organization, the San Isidro Association, is working with Friends New England on the project. The San Isidro Association is providing book storage and work space near the construction site.

Many volunteers have found the course of their lives changing as a result of a service trip to the town nicknamed Chac. College student and musician Vail Cerullo was contemplating making such a trip in summer 2012, but died before that could happen. However, his girlfriend did make the trip and shared her experiences with Cerullo’s mother and stepfather, Lisa Cerullo and Michael Schina, who traveled to Chac in May, and as a result, will help fund the library, including a music program. In The Power of Music, Lisa Cerullo shares how listening to children singing in Chacraseca helped ease the pain of her son’s loss and inspired her to help create a legacy of music and literacy there for her son.

While lending libraries are a relatively new concept in Nicaragua, this particular library’s chances of success are enhanced in several ways:

Locals, not outsiders, decided it was time for a library and asked for it. With a library, teachers said, they and their students could do research locally. Adults needed access to information to help them farm organically or obtain microfinancing. Everyone wanted a source for entertainment and literacy.

The library has strong financial backing, with principal funding from Vail Cerullo’s family and additional assistance from ONE owner Jacqueline O’Toole and customers at her store in Duxbury, MA. ONE, which sells fair trade gifts made by third-world artisans, donates a portion of proceeds to artisans’ communities. The First Presbyterian Church in Elgin, Illinois has donated books.

The community has been the beneficiary of long-term help from several U.S. nonprofits within a framework that promotes self-governance and sustainability.

As a Library in a Box recipient, it can seek ongoing guidance. “Jane , has been super-helpful advising, consulting and setting us up with the Library in a Box,” Cipoletti said. It has a professionally trained librarian from the U.S., Clare Davitt, helping with its launch.

The San Juan del Sur Biblioteca Library in a Box program has provided the basic tools to start a lending library to more than 50 communities in Central America. The SJDS Biblioteca provides training in a proven system, a starter kit of books and supplies, and ongoing support and low- or no-cost books.

Volunteer Library Director Heather  Caraway picking out books for the Library in a Box with one of their star patrons.
Volunteer Library Director Heather Caraway picking out books for the Library in a Box with one of their star patrons.

As a library science student and Dean’s Fellow for International Initiatives at Simmons College in 2011, Clare Davitt met with Michael Cipoletti to discuss the proposed library. While Simmons College didn’t become involved in this project, as she neared completion of her master’s degree in 2013, Davitt decided to celebrate her coming graduation with a 10-day service trip to Nicaragua in July.

“After just a few days in Chacraseca, working on a home, teaching in an English class, working in a classroom for blind children in a school for special needs, and simply being welcomed into the homes of so many families I knew my first instinct was right: I wanted, I needed to stay,” says Davitt in a blog she wrote about the project. She’s still there, working with and training librarian Lourdes Ojeda Hernandez. She had used her savings to stay through January. When the library board asked her to remain during the library’s first few months of operation, Davitt began seeking funds from FriendsNE supporters and her friends and family to cover $400 a month in basic living expenses from February through July 2014.

Other Chac residents involved in the project include Karla Hernandez Toval, student president of the scholarship group, which helped conduct a survey about the library and is involved in fundraising, and Concepción Montes Ojeda, local representative for Friends New England.

“Opportunities are beginning to open up,” Cipoletti says, “and while poverty is still an obstacle, education is more readily accessible. By building a library we are investing in the community, we are investing in the future leaders of Nicaragua, and we are working with the community to develop tools that will break the cycles of poverty.

Cipoletti added, “The library honors the legacy of Dick Streb, an educator and an inspiration for Peter White, and as a result thousands of others that have had the opportunity to know Nicaragua and its people, to walk the dirt roads of Chacraseca, and to learn that we can make a difference.”

San Juan del Sur volunteers working with Richard Streb Library Manager, Lourdes Ojeda Hernandez and Library Committee Chair Clare Davitt.
San Juan del Sur volunteers working with Richard Streb Library Manager, Lourdes Ojeda Hernandez and Library Committee Chair Clare Davitt.

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