Local literacy group reaches out to Guatemalan students | SummitDaily.com

Local literacy group reaches out to Guatemalan students

Kathryn Corazzelli
Summit Daily News

Special to the Daily A teacher in Guatemala reads to her class from a book for the first time.

Mary Anne Johnston has been on a few Third-World excursions, but her recent trip to Guatemala was “by far the most incredible experience I’ve ever had in a developing country.”

Johnston, the literacy chair for the Rotary Club of Summit County, just got back from an 11-day trip to the country with the Guatemala Literacy Project, a partnership between North American and Guatemala Rotary clubs and the nonprofit Cooperative for Education. The group strives to address the root causes of poverty in Guatemala through education initiatives.

Here’s how it works: The literacy project matches Rotary clubs in North America with needy schools in Guatemala. The clubs raise funds to purchase textbooks, library materials and computers – the Summit County club gave $2,000, which was then matched twice – which are then delivered through trips by the Rotary members. This past trip included Rotarians from all over, including two from Summit County: Johnston and Joni Ellis, who was accompanied by her husband, Pat Wathen.

According to its website, the cooperative chose to help the children of Guatemala because many graduate school without the necessary skills to get mid-level jobs, which condemns them to a life of “ignorance, poverty and discrimination.” According to UNICEF, 75 percent of Guatemalans live below the country’s poverty line.

On this particular trip, picture books were given to elementary teachers, who previously received training on how to use them.

“Evidently, the teachers there just used to have kids copying things off the board,” Johnston said. “They have no books. So we’ve been training teachers how to read to a child and a group of children.”

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Students also created their own books while the volunteers were there. Johnston was given one of them, decorated with hand-drawn pictures and children’s handwriting. The authors all signed their names on a dotted line on the last page; Johnston said they all live and go to school in a dump.

Volunteers on the February trip also brought children in the middle schools textbooks for math, science, Spanish and social studies. They are all printed in Spanish. The literacy project’s website says the use of books in the classroom improves grades by up to 30 percent, and comprehension, retention and interest in subject matter by more than 70 percent.

The group visited 14 schools over the 11-day trip. So far in 2012, the efforts of the Cooperative for Education as a whole include providing 1,030 students with textbooks, the creation of four computer centers, and the training of eight new computer teachers. According to the cooperative, more than 90 percent of schools lack textbooks and basic library books. Fewer than 5 percent of children have ever used a computer.

“None of the kids in Guatemala go to school for more than half a day, because they share schools,” Johnston said. “I was just blown away. These kids were just absolutely adorable.”

For Ellis, one of the most memorable parts of the trip was the thankfulness of the Guatemalan people. Students would hold onto her, and parents would look her in the eye, “from the heart,” she said. “It felt like you we’re really doing something.”

Ellis went on the trip because she wanted to participate in an international Rotary project, and this one seemed to be well-organized and sustainable.

“It held up to all my expectations and beyond,” she said.

Johnston came back to Summit County with the same memories of gratefulness as Ellis. She has a picture of an elderly man, missing his two front teeth, who said thank-you by gifting her with a colorful woven piece of cloth.

“They have nothing. He wanted to give me something, and it just broke me up,” she said. “Here we are, we’re so fortunate and we have so much.”

Johnston took numerous pictures of the trip, and is happy to show them off. There are many of children’s faces – one of her favorite things to photograph – a teacher from the school in the dump reading to her class for the first time, and then another of them acting out the story, children peeking into a new computer room with a look of awe on their faces, and many of the locals having fun: dancing, wearing costumes and playing instruments.

Johnston said she hopes to get more people in Summit County involved in helping the Guatemalan students. She would love to see a school here help out by creating books – written in both Spanish and English – to bring over and keep in the Guatemala classrooms. It might be fun to try to get the Rotary’s Interact children involved in some way, maybe by raising money to sponsor a student. But whatever happens, she knows she’ll be going again next year. Ellis said she would definitely consider going again.

“Hopefully we’ll be giving even more books,” Johnston said.

For more information about the literacy project, go to http://www.coeduc.org/rotary.htm