The day began like any other.
A cold morning with fog lifting over the lake. The sound of tin garage doors being rolled up to reveal store fronts. Women crouched over steaming tamales in the cold air.
But today was different.
From where we sat, today was bigger and better than any day that had come before it. Today, Concepcion – one the three communities in which we work – was opening its very first library. I should be more specific – its teenagers were opening the library.
Rewind four years.
Four timid girls and two stiff boys are selected as Reading Village scholars. They survived the rigorous application process. They won over our Directors. They were hopeful, and so were we. Together we committed to giving them the chance to do something that less than 1 in 10 of their peers would do: finish high school.
In exchange, we asked the group – as we ask all of our scholars – to participate in frequent leadership training and to invest in their community by leading literacy activities for younger children. It was the usual arrangement for us - scholarship, leadership, literacy.
But there was nothing ordinary about this bunch. Little did we know that this particular cohort was going to surpass our wildest expectations and raise the bar for what it means to create a culture of literacy.
In its effort to transform communities through literacy, Reading Village was never going to build infrastructure in the form of classrooms or libraries. If the town prioritized literacy enough to want a library, it would have to build one itself. We would plant seeds, invest in human capacity, facilitate connections, and cultivate potential. The rest was up to them.
Fast forward back to real time. The town has gathered to celebrate the grand opening of its library. NGOs are represented. Town leaders are present. International authors have travelled in for the ordeal. Our teens are proud, we’re proud, their parents are proud. And then they get a call from the local councilmen to come into the office.
In a country where authority has long been synonymous with corruption, suspense hangs in the air.
Our teens walk across town and gather nervously in front of the councilmen. In an act of generosity that contradicts all stereotypes of power and privilege that too often define low-income communities, these councilmen hand over – of all things – a handful of cash! It’s a small investment but an enormous gesture in the well being of the library. Turns out, the local leaders are proud too.
The rest of morning unfolds in joyful celebration. The shelves are stocked. Linda cuts the ribbon. Tamales are consumed and games played. For a moment, people are happy in a way that is rarely publicized in the international development community. It wasn’t a scene of desperation. There was no corruption. Just a community brought together by books.
For the first time, this rural, impoverished, indigenous community has a library all its own. We didn’t have to lift a finger or place a brick in the entire process. This achievement is owned by the community itself, an investment that ensures its sustainability for years to come. From teenagers to parents to teachers and councilman, the entire town identifies with this emblem of literacy. Reading Village, for one, couldn’t be prouder to stand in those circles.
In our effort to create a culture of literacy, the library stands as a resounding success. This is a high point for Reading Village, for the scholars, for the town.
But it shouldn’t be ours alone. This sense of pride and the realization of sustainable change should be a more common thread in the fabric of community development. If everyone was investing in the human capacity of future generations, maybe there would be fewer buildings abandoned, schools sitting empty, and donor dollars drained on projects that never stood a chance.
This month, we’ve chosen to remember how exceptional our teens are. To be grateful for the opportunity to work alongside this community, for the chance to build leaders who build libraries.
And we’re going to remember that the bar has been raised. If five teenagers can build a library where most folks can’t even read, really isn’t anything possible?
For the past six years we’ve been telling you how our reading promoters are not only students, but they are mentors, and teachers, and leaders, and even entrepreneurs. I’m excited to report that now six of our teens are also community health promoters!
That’s right, during the school recess from November through December, several of our reading promoters have been hired to promote health and wellbeing among family and friends. Why do I mention this? Because once more the power of literacy has unlocked opportunities that these kids had hardly dreamed of. Our teens were hired because of the promotion skills they have developed in our program: self-confidence, the capacity to communicate clearly and persuasively, the ability to teach, and compassion for others. They were hired through Angelica’s uncle who works for the health program. In a country where everyone tells a story about Guatemalans being like crabs in a basket – collaborating to form a pile to the top only for the first one to escape and leave the rest behind – these teens have formed a network of mutual benefit. Angelica did not just take the job for herself. She shared the opportunity with her compañeros. In a country with high levels of malnutrition and short life spans, this community is lucky to have six new health promoters who will share valuable knowledge about health, hygiene, and nutrition.
Once again we are reminded of how our model is working in all kinds of amazing ways to improve quality of life and break the cycle of poverty in Guatemala. Like we’ve always said, invest in a teen and you’ll change thousands of lives. Donate during the month of December so we can reach even more teens in 2013. Help us reach $30,000 by December 31st. Give generously and thank you for your partnership in this work.
I leave for Guatemala today to celebrate the end of our 6th successful year and the high school graduation of four more reading promoters: Maribel, Laura, Rony and Olivia. We’ve seen the impact our teens have had on the children they read to, and now we’re seeing the impact on their own lives as they graduate. This powerful story is captured in a new video professionally produced for us by Adam Soch. Be sure to have a look!
While you’re there you’ll see we've undergone a complete makeover. We’ve created a new logo, as brilliant as the work we’re doing together, and a new website to showcase it all. And with hundreds of supporters around the world, we’ve built a fundraising platform that lets you engage your friends and family in this life changing work. Start networking here!
As we head into this season of gratitude I want to say thank you for standing by us all this time. We’re looking forward to a very bright future.
As you’ve probably figured out, we’re a literacy organization that doesn’t build libraries.
But we don’t have to. This past summer, the teenagers with whom we’ve been working to develop leadership skills and finish high school in the village of Concepcion informed us that they would be building their village’s very first library. They petitioned their town council for a building and have begun organizing the community in renovation efforts.
Never before has a return on our investment felt quite so tangible: four walls, a few dozen shelves, orange paint, and a group of impassioned teenagers who believe in the power of reading and writing to change their community.
This fall, invest in leaders like these. On October 17th, Global Giving will match every donation by 30%. For just 24 hours, you can multiply your money and help us reach our goal of raising $20,000 to change the lives of more than 2,000 children in 2013. Go to www.globalgiving.org and search for “Empower Guatemalan Youth” to find us.
And when you decide to support our work, remember this: In North America and much of Europe, $50 may fill your tank with gas, but in Guatemala it can provide teenagers with the resources to revitalize a community through reading and literacy programs. Make your money go further and give to Guatemala. Thank you for trusting us with your investment.
I'm traveling to Guatemala a week from Sunday, and I can't wait to interview the teen reading promoter candidates for 2013 and to see the space the teens in Concepción have acquired to convert to the community's first-ever public library.
Julio César (a promoter who graduated from our program and high school last year) wrote to tell me he thought the space was beautiful. His comment touched me because the space is, quite frankly, hideous. It needs much work, but he already sees it through the lens of his vision. It's already a library in his mind's eye. His ability to envision and create a new future like that is an ability he acquired through his experience and training in our program.
I'll be posting photos and stories during my trip. If you'd like to stay up-to-date on all the inspiring tidbits, "like" Reading Village on our Facebook page.
And consider coming to see the work and meet these amazing teens yourself! Larry and I will be leading a service-learning trip to our communities in Guatemala November 3-10, and we'd love to have you along.
November is an amazing time to be in Guatemala -- especially if you enjoy sunny weather and spectacular sunsets over Lake Atitlán. These trips are a wonderful combination of cultural exchange, sightseeing and service. You'll develop friendships with our teen reading promoters and their families, experience daily life in rural Mayan villages and help our promoters put on a "reading fiesta" for the children in one of our communities. The registration deadline is October 1st. If you are interested, you can find more details on our website and feel free to contact me.
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