Local READ program enhances literacy in South America
Celeste Reyes of Waynesville has an unwavering passion for helping the residents of Ecuador.
It’s a passion that has led to the development of READ, the Rural Economic Advancement and Development program based out of Haywood County. The program helps enhance the standard of living of Ecuador’s most underserved population by introducing resources to remote areas.
Perhaps one of the biggest resources READ has contributed to Ecuador residents is the development of the first public lending library in the state of Cotopaxi, which was built in 2011. The library is located in the Pujili district — about 120 miles from the nation’s capital, Quito. It’s open to all ages, and offers materials for ages ranging from kindergarten to adult.
By using the library, children and adults in Ecuador have been introduced to books, magazines, DVDs and puzzles, Internet access and free computer classes. In addition the library offers school supplies and school equipment for loan such as computers and projectors. The library loans materials to a total of 15 area schools.
“Just giving out books wasn’t effective because the people didn’t really know how to use the materials,” Reyes said. “They didn’t have a library in the schools, they didn’t have a library in the district, so we decided we needed to teach people how to use the materials.”
READ has been in the works since 2004, and in 2011 it flourished with the completion of the regional library that was built in Macuchi — a town with a population of 409,205 people.
“I’ve seen how a book can transform a child’s life,” Reyes said. “Every child deserves an education and books if they want to read.”
According to the 2010 census, about 24.3 percent of the Puijili district population is illiterate with an average educational level of sixth grade. Unreliable transportation, coupled with poverty creates conditions that make educational opportunities unreachable for most children and adults living in rural Ecuador.
Reyes and her younger brother moved away from the district with their mother, Ginny McNair, to the United States for a better education.
“It came time go to school (in Ecuador), but the education opportunities were few and far between,” Reyes said.
Reyes and her brother moved to Haywood County in 1987 and later graduated from Tuscola High School. Reyes’ father is an Ecuador native and her mother is an American.
Reyes and her mother are now co-directors of READ. McNair currently resides in Ecuador and oversees the library there while Reyes travels back and forth. Though Reyes teaches reading part time at Hazelwood Elementary School, her real passion in life is helping children learn overseas.
“I look at the children over there, and I see that if it weren’t for my parents, I could have been like that,” Reyes said.
Reyes and other READ volunteers travel to Ecuador several times a year while bringing supplies and materials for the library. With weight limits heavily forced on an airplane, the volunteers and Reyes always pack lightly.
“We’re reaching everyone with what they want to learn,” said Brenda Griswold, chairwoman of the READ board who also travels to Macuchi. “The big obstacle is taking the school supplies and the books over there.”
READ also offers the Jorge Reyes Scholarship program, which started in 2004. The program helps families in extreme poverty afford the costs of high school. Last year, READ provided financial assistants to 21 students, each of whom in turn participated in a volunteer program at the library.
READ is currently on a mission to make its lending materials more accessible, so it is working with community leaders in Ecuador to design another library to fit the region’s resources and needs. The goal is to open up a second center this year.
Right now, READ is pushing to build a second library in Apagua, Ecuador because of the high demand of books and materials in the region, Reyes said.
“We’re already lending out books to kids and we have 60-70 kids waiting in line to check out one book,” Reyes said about the current library.
In the summer, READ sells items from Ecuador to raise money. In the colder seasons, inventory is limited so READ holds several other fundraisers throughout the year.
The program is also supported through donations from various churches and individuals. READ is always accepting monetary donations and school supplies, which will benefit the centers in Ecuador. In addition, residents may also sponsor an Ecuadorian high school student on scholarship.