The Energy of Books: Isais and the Traveling Library

Amanda Flayer

 Amanda Flayer is the Co-Founder and Director of La Puerta Abierta Children’s Learning Center and Library in Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala. La Puerta Abierta was established in 2006 and is the first free child focused learning center in Santiago.

In 2014, La Puerta Abierta’s Traveling Library reached out to 8 schools, 5 different grades, 25 classrooms, 40 teachers, and 400 students on a weekly basis!

Today, we want to share with you a glimpse of our program through eyes of our Traveling Library Coordinator Isais.

It’s 7am in Santiago Atitlan and the pueblo is beginning to come alive with food vendors in the market at the town square, agricultural workers heading off to the fields, boats filling up and leaving the docks carrying passengers to other destinations. Isais, our traveling library coordinator extraordinaire, crosses the town square carrying a backpack full of books and a bag of art supplies. He heads to the local pick-up stop and squeezes into the back of a truck crowded with other passengers. This is the vehicle that will carry him down twisted dirt roads to his Wednesday school in Chacaya.

2071b9a3-325b-4e39-9c9a-4925b3d14560Arriving in Chacaya, Isais is immediately surrounded by students, happily cheering “Profe Isais!”, giving him hugs and high fives, while jumping up and down with excitement. Isais is equally enthusiastic with the students, who he hasn’t seen since last week’s visit; he makes conversation with them as they walk into their classroom.

The classroom teacher gives Isais a warm welcome, allowing him to step in and lead the class. For the next hour, the students will be fully engrossed in the stories, songs, and activities Isais has planned, which also provide the classroom teacher the opportunity to observe and learn from Isais’ creative teaching practices.

3642b1da-f324-48ff-9375-213d6b5beb2bAs the students settle into their seats, Isais places a stack of books on each of the classroom tables. Within seconds, each book has found its way into the eager hands of a child, and the students begin reading about La Oruga Muy Hambrienta (The Very Hungry Caterpillar) admiring pictures of Casi Dibujos (Almost Drawings) and flipping through the pages of Un Beso en Mi Mano (A Kiss on My Hand).

After Isais has unpacked his materials and supplies for the day, he calls the students to the front of the room, singing a “Circulo” song and the children gather in the center of their classroom. More songs and movement follow, and students giggle as Isais engages them in silly songs where they imagine that they are elephants or airplanes. After many songs and much laughter, Isais asks the students to sit down quietly in the circle again – it’s story time.

In this precious moment, the students forget about the ill-fitting shoes or over-sized shirt they might be wearing that day, they don’t notice the cold, hard floor beneath them, nor are they distracted by the sounds of roosters and dogs outside the doors. Despite the dim lighting, the students’ faces are lit up with wonder and joy as Isais begins reading them a story.

Story time is a sacred activity to the students of Chacaya II school, because it is not something that happens every day. There is hardly a story book to be found in the humble classroom in which the students spend most of their day. And while they study hard, learning to read and write and spell, often in a second language, the opportunity to engage with language through narrative, to enter the dynamic world of the story and activate the creative and abstract areas of their brains is only available to them through this program. The effect the program has on them is immediately visible through their alertness, excitement, and focus. As they listen to Isais animatedly read the book he has chosen for the day with a carefully created lesson plan, they journey with him outside of their classroom to other worlds, real and imaginary, learning to stretch their imaginations and hone their critical thinking skills along the way.

After the story’s end, Isais begins a lively discussion with the students. He asks them to process and reflect through a variety of why questions. The group discussion allows the students to exercise reasoning and decision-making skills, develop the capacity to analyze information, and expand world-views.

a39d2c45-1a2a-41a4-b20f-80764e26ec87At this point, Isais asks the students to return to their seats and begins passing out recycled materials that the students will transform into an art project, related to the story they’ve just heard. Perhaps they will make beautiful birds out of old Compact Discs, a collage out of leaves collected from outside, or pages of a giant book out of newspapers. The students learn to follow instructions, express their creativity, and develop fine motor skills through these projects, which they are also proud to take home and share with their families.

With the curriculum for the day finished, Isais departs Chacaya II school, hugging the students and wishing them well until next time. He’ll move onto another classroom for today, and tomorrow, he’ll wake up and begin his journey again with a different school, providing new students and communities with the benefits of the Traveling Library Program. His dedication and enthusiasm are two of the many qualities that make our program shine.

But, Isais would not be able to complete his work alone. The Traveling Library thrives thanks to the contributions of our supporters near and far. If you’d like to support our program, please visit Natik’s catalog for change at https://natik.org/contribute/2014-catalog-for-change/#PuertaAbierta.

Closing the Year with Just Apparel

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Jenn Miller is Natik’s Guatemala Project Coordination fellow, and has lived and worked in Santiago Atitlan since July 2014. Jenn has worked extensively in the areas of program development and administration, community organizing and advocacy, and international social work. This week she writes about Just Apparel’s end of year celebration, which was well deserved after the recent sales!

I’m walking down the street carrying a large pot full of guacamole and a bag containing a container of freshly-made salsa and a box of envelopes. I get a few curious glances and return them with a smile as I continue on my way to the Puerta Abierta building.

IMG_0386When I arrive, Dolores is already there with her husband Juan and her 4-year old son Gaspar. We all greet each other and Gaspar invites me to help them complete the butterfly puzzle they’re working on. He has just a few pieces left and we encourage him as he works to figure it out.

The puzzle complete, it’s time to  re-commence the preparations for our Just Apparel end of the year party! Dolores and I met early in the day and went to the market with a long list of shopping ingredients. After many stops in the market, we emerged with two heavy bags full of all of the ingredients we need to make three different kinds of tostadas and horchata (a rice milk beverage). We returned to our houses with separate assignments – Dolores would make the black beans and horchata, while I was responsible for making guacamole and salsa.

IMG_0389Now, with all of the food prepared and ready to be served at the Puerta Abierta, we have just a few other things to get ready before the women arrive. We get out plates, cups, napkins and serving utensils. Then, Dolores and I begin decorating envelopes with each of the women’s names, while Juan goes off the bank to get smaller dominations of money. When Juan returns, he helps us stuff the envelopes with a quantity of money, the same in each one. This is an end of the year honorarium for the women – kind of like a Christmas bonus, we give each woman a little bit of extra earnings from what our sales and donations for the year have brought in.

We’re just beginning to pour horchata into the glasses when the first few women come in. We welcome them and greet each other, and more soon follow, taking seats around the tables in the Puerta Abierta’s pre-school room. Dolores and I head to the bodega and begin preparing plates of tostadas to serve – three tostadas for each person, one with black beans, one with guacamole, and one with salsa. We spread the toppings rapidly on the crunchy tortillas and arrange them on plates. Then, with Juan’s help as well, we head back into the pre-school room carrying as many plates as we can and begin passing them out to everyone to enjoy.

IMG_0390When everyone is seated and enjoying their tostadas, we allow some time for the women to chat amongst one another. They truly are a community of women who have been working together for many years now, and anytime they are all in the same room, the sound of laughter rings out. Dolores and I talk with them as well, mingling about the room as everyone finishes their tostadas.

At this point, we pause to give a brief discourse – I speak in Spanish and Dolores translates into Tzu’tujil. We thank the women for the hard work they’ve dedicated to Just Apparel this year, send them greetings from our co-workers in the U.S. who weren’t able to join us, and provide a few updates on upcoming events. Then, we pass out the honorarium envelopes, calling each woman by name, and everyone expresses their gratitude for the additional economic support during the holiday season.

Finally comes dessert! Dolores and I pass out cookies and lollipops to everyone, which the children who have been brought along especially enjoy. And then it’s time for all to be on their way before it gets dark.

IMG_0393Dolores and I say goodbye to each woman individually, thanking them for coming and for working with Just Apparel. There’s lots of hugging, hand-shaking, and kissing on the cheek as the women take their leave, walking out to the dusty streets to catch a pick-up truck or a tuk-tuk back home for the evening.

Once all the women have gone, Dolores, Juan, and I begin washing and drying dishes, throwing away trash, sweeping, and putting everything back in order so that the Puerta Abierta is nice and tidy for classes in the morning. We’re grateful that everything went so smoothly, all of our planning and preparations paid off! The clean-up goes by quickly as we talk and joke together throughout, and then we also head for home with happy hearts, glad to have shared this lovely event with the women of Just Apparel.

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Visit the Just Apparel website to learn more about them and their merchandise.