For this month’s Peek at Our Partners we interviewed Greg Meenahan of Child Aid, who worked with IBB to get thousands of books to Guatemala last year.
What is Child Aid’s primary goal?
Our mission is economic and social development through literacy. Our goal is to move a student progressively from “learning to read” to “reading to learn.” In rural Guatemalan primary schools, students rarely progress beyond basic reading abilities; essentially, they are merely decoding words. When Child Aid discovered this, we developed our programs to advance reading comprehension and the development of critical thinking skills. We work in rural villages because this is where illiteracy is highest, and disproportionately affects indigenous people.
Child Aid hires and trains Guatemalan men and women from these rural areas to become literacy trainers for the public schools in their communities, with the goal of effecting changes that are sustainable.
IBB and Child Aid recently worked together to send 44,315 books to Guatemala, and we have another shipment in the works; how do books and educational materials fit into your programming and goals?
Books are essential to all of our endeavors. No matter how well-trained a teacher is, a wide variety of high-quality books is key to motivating children to read. When we begin with a new school, we typically find approximately 2 books per child there: 300-400 in the entire school. But when teachers graduate from our four-year program, their libraries have grown to include 4,000-5,000 books. We also support community libraries from all over Guatemala with large book distribution events. Librarians attend these events to learn valuable skills, and to receive between 500-2,500 books each.
Child Aid stocks, promotes, and trains people on how to use libraries; what role do you see libraries playing in the rural communities that you serve?
It’s hard to imagine, but libraries in Guatemala traditionally don’t lend their books or provide open stacks that children can explore. Our librarian training turns libraries into focal points for literacy activities in their communities. Child Aid-trained librarians open their collections through book exhibits, literacy games and activities, after-school and school-break reading programs, and story hours that are attended by children with their mothers, who are almost always unable to read.
Adventures in Reading, a popular school-break book club program, is one of our library workshops, and has met with enthusiasm from everyone who’s participated in it. In 2014, it was expanded to include schools and school libraries. Valuable gains the children make during the school year are preserved and cultivated through this program, which includes writing projects, games, and of course, books; books that would otherwise be locked away during the school break.
What’s next for Child Aid? Any cool new programs on the horizon?
One of the biggest barriers to scaling a teacher-training program in Guatemala, as in any developing country suffering from a weak education system, is finding effective teacher trainers. Because our strategy involves employing indigenous people from the communities where we work, the training and professional development of our staff is a primary objective. Since 2007, when we began working directly with primary school teachers, we have added staff incrementally, one or two each year. Our objective in 2016, however, is to hire a cohort of new trainers (4-6), and to develop our organizational capacity to train an entire team at once. The new cohort of trainers should be coming on for orientation and training during the school break months, October through January. Training an entire class of trainers is a vital strategy that Child Aid is excited to develop, as it will allow us to scale our program efficiently, and to significantly increase its impact.
Another exciting development for Child Aid is the establishment of many new connections with the Guatemalan Ministry of Education. In April, we were invited to give a presentation at the first Guatemalan national conference on innovative literacy practices. Our presentation was received with much enthusiasm. Many district superintendents requested that our trainers come to their schools. Ministry of Education representatives left their emails with CEO Nancy Press and our staff, and Nancy is now in touch with them. We are helping to frame this conversation in Guatemala, as it becomes ever clearer that there is no better way to improve the quality of Guatemalan primary schools than to train teachers and to give them the books children need.
What are you reading right now?
I’m currently reading a collection of essays by Barry Lopez, About This Life. My favorite essay so far is “A Short Passage to Northern Hokkaido,” which chronicles the author’s visit to this Japanese island. The essay is an examination of gift giving and cultural exchange that take place in spite of a language barrier.