Reading has always been my passion. It takes me to another world that is free of my algebra tests and English essays. These things may seem huge to me, but they are nothing compared to the desperation of poverty. With the goal of helping those less fortunate in some small way, my sister, Juliana, and I decided to give impoverished children in Colombia, the country of our ancestry, the opportunity to pick up a book, visit a new world and forget, even momentarily, their troubles.
In June of 2018, we reached out to Fundación Pies Descalzos (FPD), an organization founded by the singer, Shakira, that builds schools in Colombia’s most “vulnerable” communities. The foundation provides access to the most basic educational needs, including teachers, classrooms, fields, libraries, art, music, and all the materials that many of us take for granted. They responded quickly, stating that they had many needs for their three schools, which are located in Cartagena, Barranquilla, and Quibdó. However, Barranquilla had a new library that lacked fiction books. Together, we discussed the creation of NJ Books for Barranquilla, which would draw resources from our local community in New Jersey, to help in any way we could.
Over the next four months, we were in action. We reached out via social media, local media and word of mouth. Book collection boxes outside our house and in the Verona Public Library were set up; the response from the community and our friends and family — and even strangers — was more than we ever hoped for. In August, we were invited to set up a lemonade stand at the Movie Under The Stars, a free movie viewing in the middle of town. Viewers walked over to our stand with armfuls of books and bought our lemonade. The community delivered over $100 and received almost 100 books. Between the monetary donations and the hundreds of books that poured in, we collected over $1,000 and more than 500 books over the course of four months!
Since most of the donated books were in English, they were beyond the language capabilities of the students in Barranquilla. Therefore, we got in touch with Kathleen Lane, a teacher from the Freehold Intermediate School here in New Jersey, who had expressed her interest in the overflow of books for a community program she had started. We felt a responsibility to ensure that the books entrusted to us, would reach the best possible home. My mom drove about 12 boxes of books to Freehold in October. In a letter Ms. Lane wrote to us in November, she stated, “(Freehold Borough) … has 80-85% reduced/free lunch and are a Title II school district…many of our families rely on school for… donations made for holiday dinners, holiday gifts, health and dental services as well as educational and emotional support…Freehold Borough is the perfect home (for the books). Many of our families cannot afford the ‘extra’ funds for books for fun, rather their money is spent on food and necessities.” The teachers at the Freehold school carefully picked out books that were best for their students and presented them on Back to School Night.
On Wednesday, November 7, 2018, we arrived in the city of Barranquilla, a tropical city of 1.2 million inhabitants located in Northern Colombia. We brought boxes with approximately 200 books, in English and Spanish for grades K through 5 that had been donated and bought via our organization, NJ Books for Barranquilla. The next day, in over 90-degree temperature, we visited the FPD school and were met by Enrique, our host and the school’s events coordinator. Enrique gave us a tour of the facilities and answered all our questions—we had many!
Unlike the schools in our neighborhood, the classrooms were all on one floor and the elementary, middle, and high school were on the same campus. There were indoor/outdoor rooms set up for eating areas, art, and various band practices. As anticipated, a huge turf soccer field took over a large portion of the campus; during their free time, students could be found playing intense games of fútbol.
The library was large, warm and stuffy with high ceilings and only a slow-moving fan to circulate air. There were several tables for reading and studying, and a map of the world that took up an entire wall. Behind the tables, there were a few wide rows of bookshelves. On the other side of the room, there were multiple smaller bookcases that contained simpler books for younger students to enjoy. While in the library, we had the opportunity to speak with one of the teachers, Ms. Carmen, who told us all about her experience at Fundación Pies Descalzos. Ms. Carmen teaches some of the younger grades and is from the city of Barranquilla. She told us that she had had been thrown into some unexpected teaching situations over the years, for example, she was once asked to take over an English class, yet she didn’t even speak English!
When she saw we had Green Eggs and Ham in both Spanish and English she was so excited because she and her students could learn by reading the book in both languages. After speaking with Ms. Carmen, we were able to watch the kids running around and playing soccer on the turf field in the back of the school during recess. Many kids came up to us and asked us who we were, they were so surprised and curious when we told them we were from the United States on a mission to deliver books. In addition to talking to students at recess, we also went into the 3rd and 7th grade classrooms to observe and speak with the kids. The third graders were learning about slogans and using labels from household items to identify different types of products. We sat with the kids as they worked on group projects and chatted with them about school and their assignment. It amused us how some made the lines on their papers perfectly straight and fought over who drew the best lines.
They were very interested in our journey to Colombia and asked me if I spoke English, then asked if I could say something. I laughed because in the United States, people usually ask if I could say something in Spanish, but in Colombia it was the other way around. The seventh grade class was working on drawing projects. Some kids drew portraits, some drew soccer balls and some drew maps. In between classroom visits, we heard a band practice an old Colombian song, “La Piragua”. Enrique told us that the schools had four bands: rock, classical, folkloric, and pop.
Enrique felt that after the tour of the school, we should drive through the local community so we could understand why the need for the organizations such as FPD and NJ Books for Barranquilla was so important. There were little shacks that students called their homes, stray dogs on the street, unfinished roads, and a river so contaminated with garbage that it was a health hazard for the community. This is so unlike our town of Verona, with its nicely paved roads, six beautiful schools, a brand new library, and several well-maintained fields. The FPD school provides much-needed hope that the children can get an education and escape poverty. Armed with knowledge, our hope is that when we return, the kids have created better living conditions for themselves and their families.
Our book donation to Barranquilla and monetary donation to the school in Quibdo, benefitted a total of 1,538 students. Visiting and meeting the kids face to face was such a rewarding experience for my sister and me. However, we couldn’t have helped Barranquilla without the support of the community of Verona.
Karina Squilanti is a sophomore at Verona High School. Her sister Juliana is an eighth grader at H.B. Whitehorne.