Your website goes down and the server you host with refuses to restart it due to payment complications; your computer network crashes, completely wiping your digital cataloging software; the budgets that you’re working from are under constant threat of being slashed, or funds withdrawn permanently; sounds like the year from hell for most librarians. And yet for some, these are nothing but commonplace setbacks that pale into insignificance when compared to the problem of national illiteracy and apathy towards furthering education and learning.

Cam O’Brien is one woman who has learned this the hard way. Living and working on Roatan, a small island off the coast of Honduras, she knows all too well the restraints and pressures of trying to run a successful academic venture in the face of adversity. The founder and chief-executive of Partners in Education Roatan (PIER) – an NGO dedicated to improving education and quality of life on the Bay Islands – she started a mission to “improve the economic development of the island and the quality of life of its people by ensuring the excellence of education.” I met with her at her pioneering venture, Sand Castle Library, to learn more about her goals and the challenges she faces.

Sandcastle Library, Roatan
Sandcastle Library, Roatan

Cam first became aware of poor education standards on the island when she worked at a dive resort. Keen to promote local industry, she would interview young local men and women who were looking for work. “I knew not to expect too much,” she tells me, “but it was important to me that my staff had a basic understanding of English and maths, and so I used to include a simple maths problem at the start of the recruitment process and ask them to fill out their application in coherent English.”

She wasn’t exaggerating; the question that sat at the top of the form was ‘7 x 6 = ?’ And yet, over the 17 years she worked there, only 3 locals were able to answer correctly. Add to that the fact that most were unable to consistently spell their own name, and you start to see just how big a hole there is in the local education system. “I said to myself ‘I’ve got to do something’” Cam explains. Compelled to begin making a difference, she started PIER and, in 2006, she raised the funds to refurbish a school. $16,000 later, the school had a new roof, new wiring and were waiting on the installation of a top of the range computer lab, when Cam realised that her field of vision was too narrow. The desire to bring education and resources to the masses inspired Cam to build Sand Castle Library, a unique venture which saw the dive resort that she had previously worked at converted into a space for learning.

The computers that were destined for the school, were placed in a homework centre where children could attend for free. It was an unprecedented success; vandalism and petty crime in the area disappeared, and, to people’s surprise, the children came in their droves. The secret? “Computers” Cam explains. “Everyone was amazed that the kids actually wanted to come but once they knew the computers were there, we had an irresistible lure.” Installed with simple English and maths games, the children were not only able to learn, but also began to teach each other. Inspired by this early success, Cam created an overview of the entire island’s education system for the Education Commission and the Chamber of Commerce for Tourism. It highlighted the changes that needed to be made and the goals to aim for. The document, entitled ‘Vision 2020’ designed a model school, run by islanders for islanders.

As part of the preparation for such a facility, a call for books was put out globally. “We expected to get 30 or 40” Cam tells me, “a couple of hundred if we were lucky.” They ended up with 12,000 books donated from around the world and, importantly, all in English. But then, disaster struck. In 2010, in the wake of the Honduran constitutional crisis, a government overhaul saw the Minister of Education who had been so supportive of PIER’s plans replaced. It was a real blow for Cam, who’s plans were forced to change overnight. But, rather than admit defeat, she took stock of the situation and made a decision that shaped the future of literacy on the island of Roatan.

Sandcastle Library sign, Roatan

“I had an empty room, 12,000 books and a lot of time on my hands,” Cam tells me, “so I thought to myself – ‘let’s open a library.’” As the dream for the model school faded, Sand Castle Library went from strength to strength. “Kids came every day,” Cam says, “the library was meeting a need that local schools had yet to address.” A generous donation from Switzerland allowed Cam to develop the now famous Bookmobile; far more than just a mobile library, this school-on-wheels is equipped with reading specialists who give innovative workshops to children in even the remotest parts of the island. “It makes reading fun, and that’s the beauty of it. The kids don’t even associate it with ‘learning’ or ‘school’, they’re just there to enjoy themselves and do something different.” Already this year the Bookmobile has loaned out over 16,000 books and has run 507 reading specialist workshops in the local schools. For the first time in the island’s history, reading is accessible.

But in spite of its successes, PIER faces struggles every day. With the annual budgets reliant on donations, grants and fundraisers, and a large part of the workforce formed of volunteers, Sand Castle Library and its outreach programmes are under constant jeopardy. In addition, tasks that may be taken for granted in the developed world remain major hurdles to success on a remote island. Creating a strong online presence and reaching out to students over email or social media – a concern for most academic librarians the world over – becomes a mammoth task when wifi is not widely available and your students don’t have access to a computer. Instead, Cam resorts to Whatsapp, the online messaging service that works adequately over a 3G connection on a mobile phone.

But the hardest task of all, she explains, is altering the national mentality towards education and learning. “These people have been raised to believe that failure is tantamount to shame, that it’s better not to try, to save face, than it is to have a go and risk making a mistake.” As a result, standards of education are consistently low, with many teachers themselves unable to do basic maths or read anything more than simple English texts. Finding adequate teaching staff is a constant struggle, and trying to overhaul the cultural ethos remains Cam’s toughest fight.

Bookmobile Bus 2

What for some would seem like a thankless task, a seemingly neverending battle, Cam is hopeful that PIER’s efforts to improve education on the island will continue to grow and thrive. “We have big plans for the future” she enthuses, “not just for the library, but for the people of Roatan.” In addition to a new library in the island’s capital – Coxen Hole – and a Sciencemobile which will take fun, interactive projects to local communities and schools, Cam hopes to see the impact of the children’s fervour for learning begin to manifest. By tying knowledge to the real world of employment and further education, children are learning that reading and writing can open doors for them, that they needn’t limit the choices that will dictate their adult lives. By changing attitudes to education, by training teachers to engage and inspire their students and encouraging children to explore, question and make mistakes, PIER is making revolutionary steps towards a brighter future for Roatan.

By Eleanor Brampton

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