Literacy in Guatemala
By Diana Schoberg
Pictures by James Rodriguez
When Rotary International President Jennifer Jones visited an elementary school in a farming village in the highlands of Guatemala and asked who wanted to be president of the country, all the students raised their hands. However, before the Rotary-supported reading program was launched in the village of Chajalajyá, students often dropped out of school after a few years. “Reading will change our society,” director Vilma Nizeth Moreira told Ms. Jones at the time. “These are powerful tools we give children to eradicate ignorance. Spanish is often taught in schools, but around 25 languages are spoken in the country and there is little written material in local languages.
The Literacy Project in Guatemala has been working to improve reading rates for 25 years. In 1997, Joe and Jeff Berninger, two brothers from Ohio, volunteered to teach English at a school in a country that had no books. So they started a project to solve this problem and it was a big party the day the books arrived. A volunteer Rotarian dentist who happened to be there wanted to know what was going on. “He told us it would be a perfect project for Rotary,” says Joe Berninger, now a member of the Rotary Club of Pathways, Ohio, who is coordinating the project.
Guatemalan Rotarians have helped design reading programs in other schools, and since 1997, the Rotary Foundation has helped fund literacy efforts through 48 grants worth $6.5 million. Nearly 800 clubs in 90 districts participated in the project, making it one of the largest local, multi-club and multi-district projects in Rotary. The initiative also benefits from the support of the American non-profit organization Cooperative for Education. “Rotary is a source of a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” says Howard Lobb, director of partnerships for Cooperative Education and a member of the Ohio Pathways Rotary Club.
From this initial textbook project, the action grew into computer cabinets, scholarships, and a book distribution and teacher training program.
Students rent textbooks, and the proceeds go to a fund to replace the books after five years. “The Rotary contribution acts as an initial investment, and when the textbooks are worn or out of date, the school can replace them with its own savings without having to apply for additional funding,” says Lobb.
Mrs. Moreira remembers a former student who was able to stay in school thanks to a Rise scholarship and who is now going to college. She read a book about Nobel laureate and Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai and “now she wants to be as important as Malala,” she says. It changed his life.”