Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala

by The Frances and Henry Riecken Foundation, Inc.
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Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala
Early Childhood Literacy & Nutrition in Guatemala

Access to information, Lifelong learning for all and the fight against illiteracy are very important, and the United Nations’ 2030 goals with regard to education therefore also form the basis for this award. That is one of the goals on the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, working towards more sustainable development in the future. Illiteracy is a global problem that must be addressed. 

Our Reading program’s target group is parents with limited knowledge of early childhood development (ECD)/nutrition best practices, who want to address their communities’ high malnutrition rates and unhealthy eating habits, passed along though generations.

In 2011 one Riecken library piloted an ECD Nutrition+Reading program to help parents develop better infant/child nutrition and ECD practices and promote a joy of reading. That program has now expanded to Riecken’s entire 65-library network. 

Riecken Libraries’ mission is to promote democracy and prosperity in Central American communities by awakening a spirit of discovery and social participation. The rural communities served by Riecken’s 65 Guatemalan and Honduran libraries have high infant and child malnutrition rates, largely due to parents’ limited nutrition knowledge from many factors, including inadequate formal education, extreme poverty, and unhealthy eating traditions. Library staff recognized that they had access to these parents, as they would often drop their children off at the library (a safe, trusted place) prior to going to sell goods daily at the market. Library staff developed a weekly program to teach parents the importance of reading and interacting with their infants and toddlers as a critical part of healthy child development. Parents are engaged by making a short group presentation about how they have been working at home with the children, and what they are learning about feeding and reading to them.    

“I participated in the reading program with a focus on nutrition this past year and I learned a lot about nutritional issues. I have had much to share with other mothers and for my own daughter. I loved the sessions that teach children to recognize letters and colors. Another subject I liked was on how to make soy sausage. What I learn here, I will implement at home because I know it’s beneficial for my family.”  Young mother.

“As a licensed nurse, health and malnutrition topics are of interest of me. I learned reading techniques and how to use reading to work with children and families. I can complement reading with my community health knowledge and experience to improve health services for my patients.” Honduran nurse. 

Adult literacy rates are 87% (Honduras) and 81% (Guatemala), although these rates are significantly lower in Riecken library rural communities.  In 2019, this program reached 8,413 people, the overwhelming majority with low literacy levels.

With InterAmerican Development Bank support, volunteer reading and health promotors were able to maintain nearly 9,000 annual participants in the program. Over 7,000 individuals from other sectors participated in different program aspects including health, education, local government, and community leaders. Where possible and when located near a health center, Riecken’s libraries were able to support weight & height monitoring with health center staff, reaching over 350 mothers and 400 children.

Riecken’s Nutrition+Reading programs work to reduce infant and child malnutrition as well as promote to parents the importance of reading and interacting with their infants and toddlers as a critical part of healthy child development. The curriculum helps libraries to develop weekly programs that teach mothers techniques for reading at home to their children and makes a link to nutrition by providing the mothers access to nutrition-themed books to read to their children. Even the many illiterate mothers can learn alongside their children to recognize vowels, consonants, and pronounce sounds, and library staff show these mothers how to “read” the pictures in the book by talking to the children about what is happening in each illustration.

Reading for pleasure or personal growth is not widely respected in rural Central America, where income is earned primarily from physical labor. This program links the real challenge of regional infant/child malnutrition, with a pragmatic solution integrating reading with improving children’s health. This program not only destigmatizes reading, but also teaches children from an early age about the joy of reading through story hours and book clubs that cater to different age groups as they grow.


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The current pandemic has highlighted social inequality, increasing the vulnerability of those groups that already live at extreme levels of exclusion. And this same pandemic has broken the existing social cohesion, making it more vulnerable to those who already were, with a closed education system and a collapsed health system. The state of alarm for the pandemic continues and in the face of a landscape of reopening services and economic revival in most communities, libraries need to strengthen their capacities, reactivate their programs especially towards those groups that have undoubtedly been most affected by confinement: children and young people who have not been able to follow their classes, who are at risk of dropout and because of the precariousness of the family economy , affected by the confinement measures established before the pandemic.

The Riecken Foundation believes that reading to children from an early age (0-5 years), stimulates the mind, develops language, and builds a base to ensure the success of reading in the future. The parents are childrens’ first teachers; so they need to be provided with tools and activities they can do with their families to promote reading at an early age and develop a reading habit that will continue throughout life.  Riecken’s programs are aimed develop language skills, vocabulary, pre-reading, as well as creating positive experiences with books. Parents also learn techniques and that they practice with their children.  Essentially, the community libraries promote six pre-reading skills that mother, father and baby can develop from birth:

  • Motivation to Books: sparking the interest in children to enjoy books, with the purpose of promoting an approach to them.
  • Vocabulary: in the first week of life, the baby can vocalize at the same time that mother does.
  • Becoming familiar with the writing: engage the children with reading, use exercises that show drawings, shapes, people, and animals, not only with figures but with written words.
  • Knowledge of sounds: help children acquire the ability to hear and play with sounds.
  • Narrative skills: librarians can relate stories and tales to children and help develop the skills in reading readiness.
  • Letter knowledge: the children begin to learn their first letters.

A modern library is a community development vehicle. A community library is a center for local citizens to meet and discuss local issues, a place to identify problems and resolve them locally. The Riecken libraries are where youth go to become leaders in the fabric of local communities. All of the books, furniture, computers, materials, and even the building itself are just tools to provide open and free access to information for local citizens to identify and resolve local community development issues, and engage impoverished, at-risk youth in shaping the future for themselves, their neighbors, and their families.

All of the activities conducted at the library promote innovative methods and/or new technologies that are not typical in Guatemala, such a developing critical thinking skills, financial transparency and free access to computers/internet, as well as contributing to the advancement of women and girls through women’s business skills training, girls’ reading clubs, and early childhood development/nutrition classes for new mothers.

Recognizing its unique approach to education, programming and community engagement, last year Riecken was selected by the Library of Congress 2019 Literacy Award Program as a Best Practice Honoree for achievement in the promotion of literacy and in the development of innovative methods and effective practices in the field of library and information science.


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Given the measures decreed by the government, the community library "Nueva Visión" in La Guacamaya (EL Progreso, Yoro) offers as "emotional therapy for stress and anxiety" that the confinement of the quarantine generates. The Community Library has started a garden which It is aimed at promoting crops that come to help the food crisis and cultivate solidarity.

The community of La Guacamaya, is located south of the city of El Progreso (Yoro, Honduras). It has approximately 1600 families, in which 6 out of 10 live in conditions of extreme poverty, including single mothers, older adults, disintegrated families, and at least 200 families have a relative with a disability. 

Given the need what it entails to be in quarantine, the Library volunteer teams organized with the purpose of promoting solidarity. Also due to this lack of food, women leaders from 11 neighborhoods organized a committee to manage humanitarian aid. mainly families that are in food crisis.

This is how this experience in the community, organized youth and women has been active, taking into account biosecurity measures. Some programs that have been developed due to the current situation of pandemic: reading at home, the pot of sharing; which is about cooking the food grown from the library gardens to their homes.

More than 30 families are now planting from their own possibilities in their homes and youth learn a life experience that has allowed them to discover the importance of cultivating the land, and to know that there are ways of cultivation more ecological. 

The Riecken model library let community answers in moments of crises: this is why libraries have always been identified as a fundamental pillar within the community since its beginning, for the support it provides at all times to families, youth and children in general.

 With support from USAID/ASHA (American Schools and Hospitals Abroad) to upgrade books, technology and furniture, and building renovations, Riecken community libraries will continue to help transform a single building block -- a community library with free computers, internet, print resources and programs -- into a springboard for democracy building, local leadership development, women’s empowerment, civic engagement and social justice in Honduras and Guatemala. Riecken community Libraries are a demonstration and promotion American principles of inclusiveness and equality, civic engagement, free expression and independent inquiry. Together with the USAID / ASHA program, we will give a concrete response to promote community cohesion, so damaged by the current situation.

We are proud to see the flexibility of the Riecken Community Library sustainability model in action, allowing for relevant local response to this worldwide calamity.  

Riecken Community Libraries are a social platform and an essential space for the social cohesion present in 65 communities in Honduras and Guatemala.


Learn more about the work of the Riecken Foundation and its network of community libraries in Honduras.


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A teenager volunteer
A teenager volunteer

Sari Feldman, in her article Public Libraries After the Pandemic, says “the value of public libraries is rarely questioned in times of crisis—think of the New Orleans Public Library after Hurricane Katrina, or the Ferguson Municipal Public Library during the unrest there. But this crisis—more specifically, the social distancing required to address this crisis—strikes at the very foundation on which the modern public library rests. And as the days go by, I find myself increasingly concerned about how libraries come back from these closures”.

 This is true and public libraries have had a rapid response to minimize the impact of social isolation to which we have been forced. Digital collections have been opened to the public, virtual talks and digital reading club have been organized, story hours are held through videoconferences... We have been forced to digitize our lives from a feeling of social isolation to feel in community. A connected community without touching. However, the priority of the Riecken Community Libraries, since its origins, has been to form the community base that supports the library, as a mechanism for community leadership and empowerment. Because we knew that the most important factor in a public library is organized and committed social participation; as well as our volunteer leaders and librarians.

 Riecken Community Libraries are proving that libraries are essential for a democratic society. The libraries are institutions where citizens are encouraged to make informed decisions and achieve their full potential. They deliver knowledge, promote critical thinking and stimulate self-education and lifelong learning. In poor communities, libraries also fulfill the role of providing a sustainable framework, with the library’s operations run by volunteers in the community. Through community leadership, important principles of development and self-government are formed. We always have believed that informed societies are stronger, healthier societies. Riecken Libraries support belief by offering safe and non-partisan gathering places where democratic values and exchanges can be held. Libraries host forums, planning meetings, conferences where NGOs explain their missions and services, and a place where issues of governance can be addressed. Wherever libraries are located, there is growing attention paid to the role, behavior and accountability of public institutions.

 Like the world's public libraries, most community libraries have had to close their doors, although that does not mean they are not working for the health of their community. While the libraries are officially closed for the time being due to the COVID-19 crisis, they are providing critical information updates and supporting local relief efforts. 

Widespread unemployment, curfews and day-to-day subsistence living make COVID-19 shutdowns extremely difficult for much of Honduras and Guatemala. Though technically closed, Riecken Community Libraries have taken leadership roles in the crisis, with dedicated librarians and volunteers on the front lines keeping information and resources flowing. 

The shut down since March of all but essential activity in Honduras and a partial shutdown in Guatemala due to COVID-19 has driven the need for the Riecken libraries to take on a greater leadership role in their communities to support international aid and health officials in their efforts to provide relief where most needed.  As trusted resources in their communities, the libraries have already become hubs of updated and accurate information regarding the virus.  The Riecken staff – working remotely – helped make this happen.

 Many of the libraries have taken action to become hubs or repositories for food, clothes and medicine provided by aid organizations and local government agencies, and are involved in coordination of distribution to those in need. With unemployment running even higher than normal and curfews affecting movement, the need for ngo support continues to grow. In some Riecken library communities, library volunteers help create and maintain rosters of community members most at risk and with the greatest need. This data serves local relief efforts well, ensuring that those in greatest need don’t fall through the cracks. 

One Riecken library actively involved in minimizing COVID-19 spread in its community is Gabriela Mistral Library in San Juan Chamelco (Alta Verapaz). Library staff used the sound equipment donated by USAID / ASHA to offer information on how the coronavirus is spread and to reproduce messages to prevent its spread, how to protect yourself and others, in Spanish and Maya Queqchi languages. The Riecken Library in Huitán (Quetzaltenango) holds weekly meetings of library staff and community support organizations to share information about How COVID-19 Spreads and How to Protect Yourself & Others from COVID-19. Library staff put up information signs in public areas so that people understand the importance of taking preventive measures.

 Ventanas abiertas al futuro Library, in Chiché (Quiché) has become a receiving center for food and other basic supplies for families in greatest need.  Its librarias, and library volunteers are key to the coordination of food supplies with the municipality – sorting, organizing and making deliveries to those who need it most.

In summary, while a vaccine for COVID-19 is found, in the rural communities of Guatemala, the most immediate response is based on the application of development strategies (education, health, social participation, responsible political organizations) to prevent contagion, and neutralize the expansion of the coronavirus. And when the activities of daily life are gradually resumed, it will be necessary to urgently promote community social cohesion.

And definitely, community libraries, with their programs and services, are ready and prepared since they have been promoting it since its inception. If, to ensure such cohesion, it is necessary to strengthen social capital by promoting a climate of trust, local association, civic awareness and ethical values; Riecken Community Libraries already do.

Like Frieldman Sari, and as the days go by, we find ourself increasingly concerned about how libraries come back from these closures. But in Honduras and Guatemala, we have an advantage over the rest of public libraries: we know how to get out of this forced isolation to rebuild the sociability of our communities.

Together with GlobalGiving and otjer donors, we will give a concrete response to promote community cohesion, so damaged by the current situation. We are proud to see the flexibility of the Riecken Community Library sustainability model in action, allowing for relevant local response to this worldwide calamity.  

Riecken Community Libraries are a social platform and an essential space for the social cohesion present in 65 communities in Honduras and Guatemala.

 Learn more about the work of the Riecken Foundation and its network of community libraries in Guatemala.

Promoting information about COVID 19
Promoting information about COVID 19


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Riecken Community Libraries are betting that growth of young children is best achieved in a healthy environment, at home, in school and in the community, key areas where critical knowledge and values for life are acquired. The libraries offer best practices for infant feeding through reading programs in coordination with health center programs that are responsible for the height and weight measurement of children and mothers over time, key indicators in child development. The interaction between mothers and parents with the children, against a backdrop of community support is essential to the program success.

The library staff in Chiché seized this opportunity with these mothers and responded directly to the community’s need to address the local challenge of high infant and child malnutrition.  The implementation of reading corners and nutrition issues in homes has been promoted. The community knows about the programs through local media. The current results are:

  • 35 households made family reading, linking 100 children under 5 years.
  • 75 children read in different spaces outside the library.
  • 150 children books provided to households.

While a library may initially not seem to be the best place to address issues of chronic childhood malnutrition, for the past five years many Riecken community libraries have been doing so. The success we witness today is the result of overall collaboration, sharing and mutual respect, among USAID/ASHA, the Riecken Foundation, and local governments, health and education authorities of each community.

 Learn more about the work of the Riecken Foundation and its network of community libraries in Guatemala.


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Organization Information

The Frances and Henry Riecken Foundation, Inc.

Location: Princeton, NJ - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @rieckenlibraries
Project Leader:
William Cartwright
Miami Springs, Florida United States
$5,795 raised of $17,500 goal
225 donations
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