Lending a hand for literacy in Nicaragua (Nov. 29, 2004)

This article appeared on November 29, 2004 in the Denver Post, page F-01:

By: Betsy Yagla

Special to The Denver Post

Photo Caption: Jane Mirandette helps a local boy in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, who has a rare opportunity to work on a craft project.

When Jane Mirandette moved to the coastal town of San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua more than three years ago, bought a hotel and set out a number of books for guests, she didn’t understand all the fuss over the tomes.

Employees’ families, friends and even neighbors suddenly started dropping by to read.

After asking around, Mirandette, a longtime Denverite, realized she owned some of the very few books in the town of 5,000 people. Nicaragua, like the majority of its Central American neighbors, has few libraries, and those are found mostly in large cities.

So Mirandette opened a tiny library in her hotel lobby. Little did she know that her small act was the beginning of a reading revolution.

Soon she was inundated with residents – mostly, youngsters – looking for books. After only a few weeks, they had gone through her modest collection.

“You can see it in people’s eyes when they come in here,” says Ana Luisa Luis, one of Mirandette’s librarians. “They’re surprised to see a lending library. They are so surprised to see so many books.”

Realizing she needed more volumes, more space and more help, Mirandette moved the operation into a small building she rents near her hotel.

Because she spoke little Spanish and had little knowledge of her adopted country, Mirandette went to the Nicaraguan Library Association for help.

They scoffed, she remembers, telling her that lending books in such a poor country was stupid: She would never get them back. The country’s libraries do not allow patrons to take books home.

But Mirandette would not be deterred.

“If I am creating a ‘revolution,’ it is like the original founding fathers in our country thought. It is for an unalienable right. Books in the hands of children is their right, as well as a privilege,” she says.

The library has more than 3,000 patrons and 9,000 books. Mirandette says the return rate is 90 percent, better than rates in the United States.

During the political revolution more than 20 years ago, Luis says, the Sandinistas launched a literacy campaign. At the time, about 80 percent of the population was illiterate.

Some of the people who travel to Mirandette’s library were taught to read then, but materials are scarce because of widespread poverty, and adults in rural areas may never read another book.

Many children have access only to the few textbooks the government provides to schools.

So Mirandette and volunteer Meghan Field, a graduate student from Boston, decided last summer to take the library beyond the walls of the hotel to the more isolated areas surrounding San Juan del Sur.

The two set up a mobile library serving 18 communities. Twice a week, a truck is loaded with tubs full of books before visiting a few sites.

“Education in Nicaragua is not like education back home,” says Mirandette, standing in the library near a colorful wall full of art projects. “There is no creative stimulation – no art class, no music, no sports, nothing. We’re just trying to stimulate these kids; give them a chance.”

One of the first schools the mobile unit visited is Las Pampas, a spread-out community of about 600 people, 80 of whom are students.

There are few homes and no other buildings along the dirt road leading to the school, which is, like so many others in Nicaragua, a concrete building, divided into two classrooms.

For the first visit, the children at Las Pampas stood outside in the blazing heat, talking loudly, excited to see the librarians. They exchanged books solemnly, studying the front and back covers and flipping through the pages before settling on two they were allowed to check out.

Picture books are popular, whether in English or Spanish, as well as those about animals, science and adventure. Harry Potter is a favorite, too.

“There are 10 children in my class who used to have problems with grades who now do not have problems,” says Gloria Maria Estrella, who has taught at Las Pampas for seven years. “Having access to these books has prompted their desire to learn. It has made such an amazing difference.”

But it’s not just about books. Field and the librarians always have a game to play with the children. At the library in San Juan del Sur, children are invited to make art projects every afternoon, and the library’s staff helps the kids with homework.

For some youngsters who frequent the library, it is their only chance to use crayons, construction paper, colored pencils and face paint.

Twelve-year-old Efraín Antonio Mora Sanchez is one of the library’s best readers, according to Luis. Already, he has used up five library cards, each one listing the titles of 24 books he has checked out.

While the library recently celebrated its third anniversary, Mirandette says, “There have been a few times when I thought we were going to have to close.”

Rent, utilities and salaries are more than $700 a month. That doesn’t cover the cost of ordering and shipping books or buying art supplies. Most of the money comes from hotel profits.

“People from all over Colorado help,” says Mirandette, who still has a home in the state.

“Some give money; some hold fundraisers. A high school student in Fort Collins used the library to provide world community service. An elderly couple from Grand Junction donated a computer and spent a month in San Juan del Sur this summer creating a new database for the library.

“The family of a Colorado Springs man, Joseph Correa, a retired teacher and coach who passed away in September, has started a memorial fund for the library in his name. An American Airlines worker in Denver will help me deliver pounds and pounds of books, clothes and donated stuffed animals from the Kohl’s stores in Greeley and Longmont this fall to Managua, Nicaragua,” she said.

She also began a nonprofit organization for the library in 2002. The Hester J. Hodgdon Libraries For All Program was named after her grandmother, who fostered in her a love of reading.

“It made sense to have the nonprofit based there because Coloradoans are incredibly giving, altruistic and adventuresome,” Mirandette said.

Mirandette, who moved to Loveland in 1984 from Boston, worked for the Whole Health Institute. She also was a nurse and editor of Healing Currents magazine. She later became a business coach before moving to Nicaragua.

Her library is becoming famous within grassroots library circles. She has organized meetings with like-minded people where they trade tips.

One couple to whom she offers advice is Bill Marquardt and Judy Heiderscheidt.

The two, of Fort Collins, bought a colonial home two years ago in Granada, Nicaragua, about an hour and a half drive from San Juan del Sur.

They plan eventually to spend half a year in Nicaragua and the other half at home. She works for Colorado State University as an adviser and instructor, and he owns Colorado Frame Manufacturing Inc. They travel to Nicaragua during university holidays.

The front of their colonial home has two large rooms, and Heiderscheidt says they need only one of them, so they hope to open a library next fall.

“It certainly would be more beneficial to the community than having another room for rent,” Heiderscheidt said. “After meeting Jane, it is not hard to be excited about starting a library.

For more information on the library effort, check the website, www.geocities.com/sjdsbiblioteca

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