World of Possibilities
Reading helps children rewrite their future
By Norris Burkes
Do you remember where you were four months ago when our world began to tilt?
I was at Republica De Francia, a Honduran elementary school deep in the gang-ridden neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras.
I was there with two dozen of my readers to help Chispa Project establish its largest library yet, one of more than 60 libraries.
All around us, children were behaving typically—teeming, screaming and careening down echoing hallways. Several stopped to hug us, sharing broad grins and cheeky smiles that stretched for miles and miles.
Amidst the recess bustle, I was surrounded by five schoolgirls of single-digit ages, all grinning with unrehearsed wonder. They weren’t subtle. They wanted to see the new books we were shelving.
I handed a book to Maria, likely the oldest of the group. She opened it with some reluctance, but soon began to read aloud the “Fiesta Secreta de Pizza,” the Spanish version of Adam Rubin’s children’s book about a racoon planning a secret pizza party. All we needed was tea and cookies to really get this new book club going.
If you know the excitement U.S. children express over a new video game, you can conceive the enthusiasm that began to build in these Honduran students upon seeing their first children’s picture book.
It was incomprehensible that someone like Rubin wrote pizza books to especially engage them. And even more incredulous that strangers from another country would think them important enough to personally hand them this book.
I felt a bit overwhelmed by this kid gaggle, but fortunately I had backup nearby.
In the school parking lot, 10 volunteers worked an assembly line offloading 2,000 new library books from the top of our bus. In a side yard, another five painted and assembled bookshelves for the library.
Inside classrooms, volunteers projected and outlined colorful murals to celebrate the school’s newly adopted emphasis on reading. Then they carefully filled in the outline with bright primary colors that brought book characters to life.
On the fourth and final day, Chispa volunteers hosted the library inauguration, a sort of all-day birthday party. The busyness returned as students rotated among classrooms for hands-on fun that included puppets, science experiments and storytelling. At the end of the day, the children gathered in the courtyard and dazzled us with a cultural dance in swirling dress.
A few days later, most of us boarded planes to a quickly changing reality with flights half full and passengers donning masks and compulsively washing their hands.
Now, four months later as COVID-19 still spreads, I wonder if Maria is even able to eat, much less enjoy her books. She, like two out of three Hondurans, experience a hand-to-mouth existence. Quarantine there means her family will likely see their food chain greatly impaired.
The crisis makes books appear irrelevant. After all, if you can’t eat, why would you care about reading?
But Chispa knows that reading offers skills that can change systemic poverty in the long run. Reading helps children develop critical thinking, analytical skills and the imagination to rewrite their own futures. And we volunteers have just provided 2,000 new worlds of possibilities.
To learn more about Chispa Project and how you can help, visit www.chispaproject.org.
Norris Burkes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento. Burkes is available for public speaking at civic organizations, places of worship, veterans groups and more. For details and fees, visit thechaplain.net.