In this blog I want to bring your attention to a very worthwhile organization that is making a difference on Eleuthera and Harbour Island. Please consider donating to this worthy cause so that the people who are doing the hard work have the means to continue bringing education and enrichment to the lives of the people of the Bahamas.More...
Freedom to Read Inc., is a non-profit organization dedicated to literacy in Eleuthera and Harbour Island. Quite simply, they are changing the lives of the people of the Bahamas so they can reach their fullest potential through the power of free access to literacy. This organization is making a real difference for the Family Islands by being an important mechanism for learning, information access and computer services.
Freedom to Read, Inc. began when librarian Susy Siel recognized a need for free access to literacy on Eleuthera Island, Bahamas. She had been visiting the island for decades with her parents, and had seen first-hand how much life could be improved by introducing quality libraries stocked with current books and new computers. I had a chance to conduct a brief email interview with Susy to learn more about the libraries and how they operate, and to see how we can all get involved to help this meaningful cause.
First, it’s important to know that the library sites are not just for students. They are utilized by everyone in the community. The majority of patron use is definitely students, however, many people come to the library to access the Internet or to have letters typed and printed. The libraries also provide document scanning, which is a great need in the Bahamas as the government departments often require physical paperwork for many of their services such as social security, home insurance, passport applications and renewals, auto registrations, driver’s licenses, etc..
As you would expect, the libraries rely on donations to grow and operate. The costs of operating twelve libraries that are quite a distance apart, on an island where costs are high in general, creates a constant challenge. While the local governmental councils are responsible for providing electricity and Internet, they do not service the physical buildings. There is great need to provide and service the AC units in nearly every library. Computer maintenance is nearly constant and the library staff is not well equipped nor trained to provide technical services. Getting necessary funding for facility and computer maintenance is a critical need.
On the bright side, most of the staff are salaried by the Ministry of Education and the Bahamas National Library and Information Services. However, these are not permanent and pensionable positions and the pay is barely enough to provide basic living expenses. Several of the libraries have Library Supervisors who are not supported by the government at all, and they provide work voluntarily. In two of the northern settlements, Bluff and Lower Bogue, the librarians are paid by a government temporary service bill called the 52 Weeks Program at a nominal $800 a month! The staff are highly trained professional librarians and, unfortunately, they can barely make ends meet. The issue of hiring and paying skilled workers is expected to continue for the foreseeable future.
I asked Susy what her plans were for the future. Would she continue to develop more libraries or did she have other ideas? She said that rather than expand, she would prefer to service the existing libraries more fully. While she has been approached by Deep Creek, Savannah Sound, Bannerman Town and Rock Sound to provide libraries in those settlements, making the current set of libraries more consistent would not only allow them to provide better services, but would also help reduce costs. For example, standardizing the printers at each site would allow donors to provide the same type of ink toner. Right now every library has a different printer so it is very difficult to even coordinate something that simple. There is a plan being developed to provide assistance to the devastated Marsh Harbour Public Library on Abaco, but Susy is unable to free up enough budget to make a meaningful impact.
Susy recounted some of her experiences from interacting with students. She said that it’s always a pleasure to see them arriving after school. Their enthusiasm to return and check out books, use the Internet, and work on their school assignments is infectious. Whenever possible Susy likes to personally jump in and assist. She has worked with kids to establish Google accounts and use Google Drive, which always seems to result in squeals of joy when they see how documents can be shared and edited in real time! She sometimes gets to play word games and assist with homework, which is just an added bonus of the job and something she really enjoys doing. She also had the privilege to participate in the Summer Book Club established by Librarian Katherine Neely. The youngsters were enthusiastic and full of life, and are genuinely excited about having access to books and computers. She loves seeing how eager and impatient the kids are to get inside. During construction and cataloging at several of the new sites she often had 6 to 7 kids standing outside begging to come in even before the libraries were open for business. She said that it’s really heartwarming to know that they simply wanted books in their hands!
I wondered, outside of monetary donations, were there other things that visitors or residents could contribute to the organization? While funding is the greatest need, there is always a constant demand for consumable supplies that are needed to assist with after school homework. This includes: crayons, scissors, glue, #2 and colored pencils, durable pens, printer paper, toner, and cleaning supplies, such as bleach, rags, Pine-Sol, toilet bowl cleaner, toilet paper, hand towels, etc. Folks wishing to donate supplies can contact Susy directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, they also require housing and ground transportation while on island. If you can’t donate directly then please consider buying and bringing these items with you when you visit.
I wanted to know what Susy’s greatest challenge was. As you might have guessed, funding went to the top of the list, but not in the way you might think. It turns out that LOGISTICS is probably the biggest issue. She said they are constantly collecting, sorting, shipping, and delivering resources to each of the library sites. From books to computers to consumable supplies, everything comes FROM somewhere and has to be delivered TO somewhere. This is no small feat on a Family Island that is 100 miles long!!! Over the past 7 years they have provided 48 pallets of books, roughly 150 computers, library furniture, and ongoing training for library staff, and all of that requires logistics. Susy says that the organization’s vehicle and transportation costs could put Freedom to Read, Inc. out of business, which would be absolutely terrible when people are now depending on the services that they provide. As her #1 wish, she said it would be AMAZING if someone would donate a high riding SUV (Jeep type vehicle 10 years old or newer) and have it shipped to Eleuthera, licensed and registered.
If you are still reading this blog, then I’m sure we are in agreement that education is one of the keys to future success in the Bahamas. Being literate is a must and literacy these days means much more than simply reading and writing. In today’s age, literacy means reading, being information and technologically literate and developing all the skills needed to be successful in our modern economy. Many Eleutherans are employed either by being a skilled tradesman or by providing some type of service to the tourism industry. And, while the trade workers in the Bahamas do great work, they often fail financially because they do not have the full set of skills necessary to run a business. I’m sure you would agree that free access to literacy is an absolute necessity to ensure a better trained populace and workforce. The Freedom to Read library sites provide a safe, clean environment to stimulate intellectual curiosity and they are doing so at the location of need. Please give now if you can by clicking the red DONATE button below.