Children were thirsting for stories. This couple built them a library.

by Whitney Eulich from The Christian Science Monitor, Don Juan, Ecuador

When resources are slim, it can be hard to build community. In Ecuador, one couple has found that a love of literature can help bring people together.

154759Whitney Eulich“A library to me is like a secular temple. You are safe. Everyone speaks your language.” – Rut Roman, founder of A Mano Manaba, a library and community center in Don Juan, Ecuador

| DON JUAN, ECUADOR - It’s after 5 p.m. on a recent Wednesday, and Rut Roman interrupts a rowdy role-playing game among 14 teens to shoo them out the front gate. “Go home! We’ll see you tomorrow,” she calls after them. 

Since 2017, the community center and library at A Mano Manaba has become a space of refuge and learning for this tiny fishing community. Adults come for yoga and job training. Adolescents arrive looking for homework help or tranquillity in the long hours between school and bedtime.
Local teachers rely on it to supplement classroom instruction at an elementary school where children often “graduate” illiterate.

Ms. Roman and her husband, Esteban Ponce, first visited Don Juan, this beachfront town in the northern province of Manabí, in 2012. It was before the community got internet access or the highway connecting it to the nearest airport 100 miles away. They were home in Ecuador on summer break from a university in Virginia where they taught Latin American literature.

The village – and the children they found thirsting for stories and education there – would bring them back home to Ecuador permanently. Books and libraries in many forms drove each step of their journey. 

“A library to me is like a secular temple,” Ms. Roman says. “You are safe. Everyone speaks your language.” 

Building self-confidence

Visitors take off their sandy shoes before stepping into the bamboo building with two-story-high ceilings. On weekday afternoons, kids are expected to read silently for 15 minutes. Then they have the chance to work on homework, pick out a new story from the 7,000 mostly donated books, take language classes with visiting volunteers, or, on Fridays, select games from the high shelf running above the windows. 

“This library has been a really positive change for the community,” says Adriana Vaca, who joined the A Mano Manaba team in 2021. She grew up here and says that in a town of 300 families, where most women her age already have three children, she’s an “odd bug.” But the library has given her a space where she can be herself. She’s studying online to become a teacher.   

“The learning children do here gives them more self-confidence and security. It empowers them,” she says, standing in a back room that’s filled floor to ceiling with cataloged books. 

As the afternoon wears on, the library fills with community: Several children look over an open encyclopedia, giggling and sprawled out on cushions on the floor, while a mother sits at a table out front reading through library magazines. 

154765Whitney EulichEsteban Ponce and his wife, Rut Roman, quit their jobs in the United States to continue to help nurture that love of reading – and the local community.

Ms. Roman is in the back of the library, talking quietly with two recently arrived volunteers from Germany. They’ll be here for a year, teaching weekly English classes at the nearby elementary school, and tutoring kids and some adults in German or English in the afternoons. Volunteers pass through for a few weeks or months at a time, sometimes trading their skills – like mural painting – for room and board.

Trueques, or barters, combined with small donations are Ms. Roman’s preferred form of funding. Most donations come from the website GlobalGiving. “If we get a $500,000 grant ... we’d become administrators and lose out on the beauty of time reading with the children or building this community,” she says. 

Beyond providing educational supports, the library teaches gender equality and respect. A few years ago, some kids discussed corporal punishment taking place at the local elementary school, Mr. Ponce recalls. He and Ms. Roman met with school officials to talk about laws prohibiting such practices. 

“You treat these children in a different way, and their expectations change,” says Mr. Ponce of the knock-on effects of the library’s culture of taking responsibility for one’s actions. 

There are weekly visits from the elementary school, a 15-minute walk away. The library organizes supplemental materials for class lessons, and some students are given one-on-one remedial reading and writing support. Armenia Ramirez, who has taught at the school for 34 years, says the library has been a boon. 

“They help us beyond measure,” Ms. Ramirez says from her fourth grade classroom that overlooks the dusty schoolyard. There are 11 students in her grade who can’t read or write, she says. “Not all parents can help [with homework]. But if the child goes to the library? There they get support.”

From biblioburro to library

The first summer Ms. Roman and Mr. Ponce spent here, they befriended a young man from the United States who would sometimes read aloud to children at his home after school. When he left town one week, he gave Ms. Roman keys and asked her to fill in for story time. 

“By the time we arrived, there was a line of kids waiting to get in.” She says she asked Mr. Ponce why they were dedicating themselves to trying to convince privileged students in the U.S. to care about Latin American literature when here, in their home country, there were children literally lining up to hear stories.

They quit their U.S. teaching jobs the next year and moved to the Ecuadorian coast as university instructors. In March 2016 they started building a home in the hillsides of Don Juan. One month later, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake devastated the province. Many survivors moved into tents across the street from the quake-damaged home where kids used to line up to hear stories. Ms. Roman and Mr. Ponce’s home was destroyed, too. 

154767Whitney EulichThe A Mano Manaba library in Don Juan, Ecuador, was inspired by a young foreigner who would read to local children at his home after school.

Friends arrived almost immediately to help the couple rebuild, and many brought donations. One evening, Ms. Roman loaded up her donkey, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, with the gifts. When kids heard the donkey’s bell ringing, they ran out to the street, where Ms. Roman read several books aloud. 

“I had planned on giving everything away, but I changed my mind and kept the books. We started coming down every day with our biblioburro [library mule], and that’s how we began,” she says.

“The truth is that it cured us of a deep depression,” she adds. “It also inaugurated a safe space where we could gather with children who had no school to attend, no home to go to.” 

The foreigner who had read aloud to local children donated his land to Ms. Roman and Mr. Ponce, which soon became A Mano Manaba.

Today, the program has a presence across town, including the blockslong mural that the center organized near the beach depicting Don Juan’s history and annual celebrations, and flyers advertising upcoming activities. 

“Some people tell us the library isn’t doing enough,” says Emma Tränkner, a young volunteer from Germany who got an earful at a beach party the weekend before. “Education and community change are a long game.”

Walking through town before lunch on an overcast afternoon, Ms. Roman can’t make it 5 feet before someone stops her to say hello. 

There are kisses, waves, and hugs. An older woman asks when the next painting course will take place. A shopkeeper gushes about his son’s progress. A little boy rides by and calls out hello. 

“Thank you for the shrimp,” Ms. Roman calls after him, explaining that the day before he “literally threw” her a single crustacean. It sounds silly, she acknowledges, but it was “the ultimate act of love.” 

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Page created on 1/31/2024 12:27:10 PM

Last edited 1/31/2024 1:07:56 PM

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