Thursday, July 24, 2014

Books Make a Difference at the Dad's Make a Difference Celebration

Is there anything better than a bright sunny day and a free book giveaway?

Reader to Reader's Family Literacy Director, Katy Moonan, gave away hundreds of books at the Dad's Make a Difference Celebration in Springfield, Massachusetts.

This book giveaway was made possible through the support of the F.I.S.H. Foundation, Inc. and the Xeric Foundation.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Video Highlights of the 2014 Athena Interactive Literacy Program

Reader to Reader's Athena Interactive Literacy Program works with teen mothers from Holyoke, MA, and combines personal literacy and family literacy with healthy eating and cooking.

A special thank you to Chef Bill Collins and Northfire Recording Studio for their donated services.

The Athena Program is made possible thanks to Florence Savings Bank,  the F.I.S.H. Foundation, Inc., PeoplesBank, and the AEC Trust.

Friday, July 11, 2014


Two years ago, David Mazor dropped me off three hours west of Albuquerque, a mile and a half up in the high desert. It rained that evening. It was quiet, and the air smoldered with the smell of sage. I'd asked David a hundred times that summer what I would do here. He said that I'd find out when I came. I'd listen and I'd know.

To my last day, I couldn't really tell you what my job was. My business cards say "Navajo Nation Outreach Coordinator." I didn't know that I'd:

- witness a dozen students improve their creative writing through our weekly Writers' Workshop meetings and celebrate their progress with a year-end, well-attended CoffeeHaus

- raise average school-wide ACT scores from 25% below NM and AZ state averages to above state and national averages

- watch an endless stream of books and resources from Reader to Reader fill classrooms and libraries

- travel around the Navajo Nation with the Office of the First Lady to deliver college readiness materials and addresses

- work with the incredible board of the Miss Navajo Council, an organization that mobilizes former pageant winners to give back to their communities

- learn to make frybread (poorly)

- watch my freshmen grow in their writing abilities and put together a magazine of their work

- prepare my shyest students for scholarship interviews

- take the Writers' Workshop to hear writing advice and performances by Luci Tapahonso, Navajo Nation Poet Laureate

- see 97% of SMIS' class of 2014 go on to college

- grow to love those seniors like my own siblings

- and be heartbroken to see them go

... and much more.

My last two years with Reader to Reader won't be my last in the Navajo Nation. Through working with Reader to Reader, I've become interested in ethical, efficient management. This fall, I'm headed to the Yale School of Management to get an MBA with a focus on social enterprise and nonprofit management. After my program, I plan to return to the reservation and work on a project to improve food sovereignty. There - now that I've said it, all of you can hold me accountable.

This post is more about me than I would've liked. Still, it's hard to extricate myself from my last two years. On some level, I want to talk strictly about the honor it has been to represent Reader to Reader in what has become my surrogate home, and what more we could watch unfurl and progress. But that wasn't all. It hasn't become a home because of improved statistics and partnerships formed. We shared a mission, and we fought for it, and we grew to love and respect each other because we did our best to listen. After all, that was my first instruction on the job.

The Navajo Nation is often characterized by poverty and hardship, but that's merely one facet of a diamond. I'm learning to listen, and in these last two years, that listening has allowed me to witness the intense dedication and talent of others, and to learn more than I thought possible. Every day, I'm humbled anew.

On my last night, my friends and I slept on the roof of our trailer. We had unexpected company - friends from over the hill. They talked, and we listened. We talked, and they listened. It grew late, and wind rattled the brush. Our dogs howled and took off across the field, and the cows lowed. A mile and a half closer to the stars, am I any closer to hearing supernovae? Three hours west of Albuquerque, does the universe seem silent, or can I incline my heart to the glory of stars being born, of giants rising, of light unceasing to illuminate the darkest corridors?

--Ophelia Hu

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Yes! The Books Are Free!

“How much are the books?”

“Are these really free?”

“How many am I allowed to take home?”

These were the questions we were excitedly asked all afternoon at Family Fun Day last week in Holyoke, where Reader to Reader gave out almost 400 books. Families with children from infants to teenagers were invited downtown to Heritage State Park to take part in fun kids’ activities and talk to representatives from local organizations. 

Reader to Reader ‘s table was stacked high with children’s, young adult, and adult books,  surrounded by an eager crowd of children and parents the entire afternoon! Everyone enjoyed themselves pouring over the books and selecting their favorites to take home.

Parents talked amongst themselves about how much their young children loved reading out loud together, and how happy they were to add new selections to their home reading options.

One mother with two young toddlers said she was relieved and grateful to have the new books to keep, because she gets so worried that her babies will tear the pages of library books that she finds it hard to enjoy the time spent reading with them.  

Meanwhile school age children were bursting with enthusiasm looking through the piles as they found books about some of their most beloved characters, books focusing on a theme that they were interested in, or something new that sparked their curiosity. 

Two of the most passionate young readers we met, a fifth grader and a seventh grader, circled back again and again over the course of the afternoon, checking if it was okay for them to take another book home with them.

Of course the answer was yes! Go forth and read! 

Funding for our Massachusetts book donations comes from the Xeric Foundation and the F.I.S.H. Foundation, Inc.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Pura Vida People

Summer intern Joel Campo shares his experiences working on project Beyond el Campo in Santa Cruz, Costa Rica.

I have now been in Santa Cruz de Leon Cortes, Costa Rica for two weeks and it has been great. Since being here, Cheyenne, Lexie and I have taught English lessons to children and adults, and have also been working on constructing a new computer room for the public library. Teaching and constructing the computer room is going really well and is a very rewarding experience. We hope to finish the computer room soon so that it may be useful to the people of Santa Cruz. Also, Cheyenne, Lexie, and I have many things planned for upcoming weeks and we are excited to see how everything works out!

However, although teaching, constructing the computer room, and planning new projects are a large part of the great experience I am having, one thing that has really impacted me is some of the great people I have met here in Santa Cruz. My host mom, Ana Navarro, happens to be one of these great people. Ana makes clothes for a living and has a nice shop at the front of the house, and also works with the local government. Ana has two sons, Cesar (19) and Miguel (21). One thing that has stood out to me about her is that she seems to be able to talk to anyone. Ana and I have discussed many topics since I’ve arrived in Santa Cruz. We have talked about the experiences she has had hosting volunteers over the years and I realized that a few years ago she hosted Caitlin Scudder, the founder of the Beyond El Campo initiative. Caitlin and Ana’s family remain friends to this day. Ana and I also talked about her experiences visiting the United States. Coincidentally, she spent time in my home state (New Jersey) and worked in Elizabeth for a few months, which was the city where my father worked for many years. Speaking of fathers, I should also mention that Ana and I have spent time discussing a topic that is difficult for the both of us—the passing of our fathers in November of 2012. This was the first year in my life that I didn’t spend Father’s day with my family; but I am glad that I have felt comfortable enough to talk to Ana and her family about our similar experiences. I am very grateful to have landed in this host family and out of the many people I have met here in Santa Cruz, Ana is largely responsible for the amazing time I am having.

Another person I have met and made good friends with is a young man named Adonay (18). I met Adonay because he is currently renting a room at Ana’s house. He has supported himself for the past two years and his weekly schedule is one that is difficult for me to imagine. He wakes up every morning during the week at 4:30am to go to work on a farm, and he finishes working around 2:00pm. Then, he borrows a friend’s motorcycle to go take classes at the high school he attends about a half hour away. He usually does not return back to Ana’s house until 9:30pm during the week. I grew up in a small middle-class city in New Jersey so I haven’t been exposed to many situations like Adonay’s, but as hard as Adonay’s situation may be, his thirst for knowledge has pleasantly surprised me. Whenever he and I have free time, he asks me to practice English with him and I of course am more than happy to oblige. He told me he hopes to one day go to college in the United States and become a doctor. I told him to keep working and to never give up.

Another person who has really inspired me during my time here is an elderly woman named Gillermina. Last week, Adonay and I went on a walk (which is more similar to a hike here in Santa Cruz) to Gillermina’s house so that he could introduce us. Gillermina is a highly respected woman here in Santa Cruz and I was fortunate enough to talk to her about her life for a few hours. She is 64 years old and in 2007 she published a collection of beautiful poems, many of which have to do with her experiences here in Santa Cruz. Her inspiration to publish the book of poems came after she had been on her deathbed for many months while battling stomach cancer for six years. She won the battle, and is now fully cured and walks around with a beautiful, welcoming smile.  She also has a great voice and I was happy to hear her read a few poems and sing a few songs that she had written. While I was at her home she even read a poem that is dedicated to the volunteers that come to work in Santa Cruz every year. Meeting Gillermina is something I will never forget. I plan to bring her book of poems back home so that I can give it to my grandmother as a gift.

Our goals coming here were to create equal educational opportunities through teaching English and to provide new resources for the public library. But as you can see, in this post I decided to focus less on what we have been doing and more on the great people I have interacted with here in Santa Cruz. I feel what we are doing in this community is very important but creating relationships with the people here is just as crucial. I look forward to continue working with Cheyenne and Lexie (and now Andrew, who is a high school student that just arrived today!) because they are all awesome, hardworking people and we are all on the same page about what we want to accomplish in time we have here. I am very excited to be on this team and I am just as excited to establish relationships with more great people in this community.

Finally, the Costa Rican national team is playing great in the World Cup and their performance has given the Santa Cruz community and the Beyond El Campo interns one more reason to smile! GO TICOS!

Pura Vida,

Joel Campo

I ha

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

In a land without an army

Beyond el Campo summer intern Cheyenne Pritchard shares her experiences living in Santa Cruz, Costa Rica.

I am in a land without an army and with coffee that does not need sugar. A honk is a friendly hello and unlike many students at Amherst, people walk with a bright smile and shout across the mountain, “buenas.” The sun is well in the sky before 6:00 AM, making for a much longer workday, and the voices of men in the fields can be heard from my backyard patio. The best way to describe this land is free. Although in some places mountains create a sense of barrier, here they remind me of the vast potential of our being. To say the people here are great would do them injustice, they are pure, and like the country motto suggests, my family truly lives una pura vida: a calm life led by the ability to let go of all they cannot control.

For example, this past Saturday I woke up with an extreme pain in my right arch. I looked down, finding a red area the circumference of a tennis ball and a red line following the path of a large vein. Past experience led me to quickly and quite frantically conclude that I had a Staph Infection. Despite my ability to usually communicate in Spanish, I could hardly form words due to my fear. My host mother, Nuria, calmly sat me down and tried to understand what was happening. Within the next hour, I was paying for antibiotics and heading back to Santa Cruz with our program director Sergio by my side. Although this was all quite stressful to me, I witnessed many acts of pura vida. First, every person I passed either in car or foot honked or waved. In the clinic, which included a small waiting area and one office, there was an aura of peace and understanding that one could not find in the impatient and pristine waiting rooms of the U.S. The doctor spoke slowly and said, “tranquila,” or “be calm” as soon as I sat down. When I returned to Santa Cruz, families I passed asked how I was doing, offered their phone to call home, and provided a warmth and friendly state of being that is utterly contagious. Thus far, my foot “trauma” has been the only imperfection of my trip and led me to a greater understanding of how the people of Santa Cruz work through life: with calmness, attentiveness, and an abundance of love.

This past week has been filled with computer room construction and many English classes. Monday through Friday, we teach English classes for “los niños,” ages 4-6. Right now we are working on basic introductions, colors, and today we made smiley-face puppets to introduce emotions and feelings. We pass many of the children in our classes throughout the day, and it is a joy to hear them say, “hello” or “see you” without being prompted. In addition, we started holding English classes for adults on Mondays and Wednesdays. Unlike my experience in America learning Spanish, there is little or no exposure to the English language in Santa Cruz, making it extremely challenging for the adults to form sounds and enunciate certain words. Regardless, they are making progress and in return are great Spanish teachers. Finally, every Monday, Tuesday, and Friday we head to the elementary school to work with first and fourth graders. The English teacher is very welcoming and open to any of our ideas and was happy to give us complete control over certain classes. More than anything, he was excited for his students to hear native English speakers.

Although re-doing the computer table created some problems and gave Lexie an allergic reaction, we are close to finishing the large and newly painted wooden table. The room has new windows and a beautifully constructed wooden door. This week we are painting the walls light blue with a green trim. The people of Santa Cruz are generously helping and community members living nearby have done a good deal of the construction. In a moment of creative genius, we decided to use the old books lying around the library to make a foot cushion and two small chairs. Made out of old books, two belts, a homemade wooden block, and cushions, we are doing our best to create stylish and resourceful chairs. Not to mention, we momentarily threatened the peaceful state of Costa Rica during our vicious fight against the giant spiders and cockroaches hiding within the boxes filled with old books. Yikes!

Within our first and very busy week, we managed to squeeze in a weekend trip to Jaco beach, about four hours away. Although the sun was hiding for most of the day, all three of us had a blast playing soccer with the locals and sharing chips and guacamole at a restaurant alongside the beach. The waves were big enough for surfers; so big, in fact, that while I was riding a horse in a small circle (go my touristy self), a wave crashed on the shore far enough to reach our bags. Sadly, I lost my phone, IPod, and had to buy a dress for the remainder of our trip due to the power of one wave. Nonetheless, the day was filled with four goals scored by your one-and-only, though Lexie would say the other team let me score (maybe that part is true), delicious ice cream, and a stunning bus ride back.

I have yet to unravel all of life here in Santa Cruz, and I doubt I will be able to before my eight weeks are over. What more could I want? As a girl who moves quickly through her day with practices, classes and other appointments in The United States, there have been very few, if any, things as rewarding as these first eight days. I can only hope that through my genuine excitement to teach the beautifully complicated English language and my desire to share my joy of reading that I will be able to return some piece of what they have already given me here in Santa Cruz.

As they say here, Ciao!

Friday, June 20, 2014

Pura Vida and Greetings from Santa Cruz!

(photo: Summer intern Cheyenne Pritchard paints the new schedule on the front of the library)

Summer intern Lexie Barber reports on the start of this summer’s Beyond el Campo project in Santa Cruz, Costa Rica.

Cheyenne, Joel and I arrived on Saturday and I can’t believe it’s already been three days. Time really does fly! Cheyenne and I left Chicago Saturday morning, and after a smooth four-hour flight, we landed in San Jose. The Costa Rican national soccer team was there so the airport was packed with reporters and cameras. It was pretty cool! We were supposed to meet Joel in the airport, but after 45 minutes of searching for him (with the help of a very kind old woman who ran up to every man in the airport yelling “Joel?!”), Sergio found us and told us that Joel was coming in late that evening instead since he got into a car accident on his way to the airport. He’s ok though so don’t worry!!

That evening we all got settled in our host homes and got to know our host families. I’m living with Clemencia and Tali who are fantastic people—so patient and welcoming. Cheyenne is living with Nuría and Pedro and Joel is living with Ana and her two sons Miguel and Cesar. Cheyenne and I live super close to each other and Joel lives down a hill from us, a little ways past the library.

On Sunday, Sergio took the three of us on a tour of Santa Cruz. Everything is pretty spread out, vertically and horizontally, and we haven’t fully adjusted to the altitude change so the walk wiped us out, but it was great to get a better sense of where everything is. We saw the elementary and high schools, the community center, grocery stores, greenhouse, and what felt like dozens of houses that are owned by Sergio’s aunts and uncles. After our tour we set up a calendar for all of our projects so that we would be ready to discuss them with the president of Santa Cruz and the women who will be working in the library with us. The meeting went smoothly and everyone seemed excited to help us make our dreams a reality.

Our first main construction project is to convert one of the classrooms into a computer lab. Today, Monday, we bought a bunch of paint and wood finish to give the room a fresh new look. We’re hoping to begin painting the walls tomorrow! Additionally, we have been helping the English teacher, Sandra, with preschool English classes and will be holding our own English classes for adults on Mondays and Wednesdays, the first class being this Wednesday.

It’s been a hectic couple of days, but honestly some of my favorite days in a long time. Santa Cruz is gorgeous and everyone in town is so friendly and kind. It’s clear that we can make a big impact here and despite being a smaller group than is typical, we make a great team and are all on the same page about what we want to accomplish in the next two months. I’m looking forward to all of our projects for this week, and a possible beach trip this weekend! More to come later on!

Ciao, Lexie