Trish Flanagan is a project fellow from the Clinton School of Public Service, who is currently researching community engagement best practices for our School Libraries. This work will inform Room to Read’s Global Guidelines on Family and Community Engagement. Trish has worked as a high school teacher at the Texas-Mexican border and a school principal in Honduras. In this guest blog, she shares her experience visiting one community in Sri Lanka.
The room was dark and hot, full of eager library club members sitting in plastic chairs and a few visitors standing against the wall of the small house. The rest of us sat quietly as the library club president, 11 year-old Sajitha, flanked by her executive officers, welcomed everyone to the meeting.
In a rural, farming community in central Sri Lanka, the team of dedicated Room to Read staff, brought me to this weekly library club meeting. We had spent the last few weeks darting around the country; visiting energized government schools and awe-inspiring libraries in the homes of young students. Yet, sitting in that small house, watching the bright eyes of the students and their quiet parents as Sajitha opened the meeting, I was amazed.
Sajitha’s family, living in this simple 2-bedroom house with curtains blowing in the doorways to offer privacy, transformed one of the bedrooms into the library. The library is organized exactly as the Room to Read library at school; bookshelves holding books organized by reading levels and topics, a small desk covered with student drawings from the stories they read, a meticulous checkout list and a few English-Sinhala dictionaries.
A few minutes after the meeting started, I wanted to ask the students how they created the club. They were very shy, so I pulled out a few of my teacher tricks to encourage the students to feel more comfortable.
Sajitha, the president, proudly smiling in her chair, explained that she asked her two friends, the executive officers, to start the club. Her parents were very excited to oblige and offered the club a room in their house. One by one, students invited their friends to check out books and attend meetings. One parent even said that many adults in the nearby community check out books and have improved their reading with year-round access to books right in the neighborhood. With training and support provided during community awareness raising meetings at the library, Room to Read staff helped to prepare these students to bring their love of reading to their homes. This small library club, started by such a young girl, is changing the lives and possibilities for an entire community.
While this library club is amazing, it is not at all surprising. The work that Room to Read teams do, with the communities they serve, is incredible. Parents and school staff excitedly explain that Room to Read is different from other programs. They do not only deliver books and library resources, the staff build relationships and teach the community about the habit of reading and maintaining the library. What is even more outstanding is the energy and determination of these rural communities, all challenged with financial stress, and some, like in the northern regions of the country, are rebuilding their communities after 20 years of civil war. The schools and families place a high value on education and when offered support from Room to Read, incredible things happen.
During an interview with community members, one parent, leaning forward in his chair, explained that before they had nothing and now have an opportunity for a new life, calling rebuilding the school and establishing a library a “different kind of change.”
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