Although 27 months seems like an extraordinarily long time to be away from home, it did not feel like I’ve been gone that long and yet have less than three months left. I hope that I made a difference. I hope that I inspired at least a few more kids to discover their love of reading. I put so much passion into my time here and sharing my love of books. I hope that they will take the things I’ve taught them and continue even when I am not there. I hope that it’s sustainable. I don’t want to give these people such a wonderful opportunity in the library, a thousand new books and then have it be neglected.
Despite my preparation and expectations, it was quite an eye-opening experience to walk into Blankenburg Primary School on my first day. One large room created a noisy, crowded environment for the 60 or so rambunctious students and teachers. I noticed that the students were easily distracted by the chaotic space and lack of educational resources, particularly books. Almost instantly, I vowed that before I completed my Peace Corps service, I would see to the construction of a dedicated space for quiet reading and learning in a vibrant, book-filled library.
I wanted to make the library the best place it could be. This was a project that took almost a year and a half from start to completion, so I was going to make sure that I put everything into it.
With the encouragement and generous financial support of USAID, the local community and Ministry of Education, family, and friends, I got to work to plan, design, budget, and build a library. The Headmistress determined where the library could fit on the school grounds, then I got going with my sketch pad to design everything from walls, roof, doors, and windows to bookshelves, tables, and chairs.
It was a bit intimidating for a “first time architect,” but exciting. The 6th grade teacher helped with the materials budget, then a local team of workers did the building and shelving construction and an amazing woodworker built tables and chairs for both students and librarian.
In order to make the space what I envisioned, I had to design my own furniture. I took a number of trips to local shops but there was nothing even remotely like what we needed. I found very few desks and the only large tables available were ornate dining sets that looked like they belonged more in the Baroque era than modern day. Thankfully we were able to locate a carpenter that made the items to my exact specifications and it turned out beautifully. They are perfect pieces in the library.
I painted bright, welcoming colors and inspirational quotes on the walls and decorated with lots of handmade posters. I painted the walls and even attempted to paint quotes and inspirational messages to liven up the space. It was a major challenge because the walls were a very rough cement, which did not lend itself to precision work. The paint here is also very different from what I’m used to in the US, and they don’t sell it in small quantities so you have to buy a larger size of a color you want and then try to mix it with other things to get what you’re imagining.
I created a visual system of color-coordinated stickers on the books and bookshelves by subject and reading level to make it easy to follow and maintain after I’m gone. I’ve done literacy testing at the start and end of each school year and documented the easy-medium-hard reading level for each student that coordinates with the books’ stickers. This visual system is particularly good for students that aren’t strong readers. For sustainability, I trained one teacher and several student “junior librarians” on how to run the library.
The students could hardly wait for the library to open! Each day a number would poke their heads in through the door and ask when it would be done – or to exclaim how beautiful it was.
The library is now open five days a week from 8:30 am until 3:15 pm with 30 students visiting daily for reading or literacy lessons. Lots of reading is done in the library, but several books are checked out daily – the most popular being ones published by Disney. The happy, quiet environment encourages students’ reading and learning.
4th-grader Ezekiel and 5th grader Johnny can’t visit enough, coming every chance they get. What a reward it was to hear Ezekiel exclaim, “When I grow up, I want to have a library. It’s beautiful!” This project has turned out far better than I could ever have dared to hope and I could not be more proud to step back and let this school community manage and enjoy their library for years to come.