Earlier this week I shared a little about how volunteer work has given me a sense of purpose since we’ve moved to Bogotá. One of the places I’ve been fortunate to find is Colegio Fundación Nueva Granada, which is a very low tuition private school in Bogotá, funded through scholarships, donations, fundraising and government assistance. Ever since earning my MLIS I’ve wanted to work in a library environment and was warmly welcomed at the school, especially since they were at the culmination of a project to transition the library to an automated system.
In order to understand why this school is such a special place, you need to understand a little bit about society and it’s environment here in Bogotá (please see my note below regarding my source). Colombia has the highest urbanization of any other Central or South American country; starting in the 1950’s, people in rural communities began moving to the country’s larger cities and by 2005, 76.6% of Colombia’s citizens lived in urban areas. According to this same source, 16.4% of Colombia’s population now lives in Bogotá (roughly seven million people as of 2005, statistics today rest somewhere around nine million). For most this displacement wasn’t voluntary, but a reaction to the increasing danger from internal armed conflict (at one point it’s estimated that Bogotá received an average of 93 people per day as a result of this internal violence). Only Sudan has a higher number of internal refugees.
In the mid-nineties the government divided cities into strata, grouping people of similar socio-economic status together (Bogotá has six strata but some towns only have three). The thought behind the law was to help those with fewer resources by subsidizing utilities—those in the higher levels pay more for electricity, water and rent than those in the lower. In addition the strata provide a basis of focus for social welfare programs, as the majority are focused in strata one and two (and subsequently displaced persons, since this is where they often have to settle). Free public education is available to all but used primarily by strata one through three, which comprises 89% of the population. It is admirable that Colombia has put in place a public education system (made free and compulsory in the 1991 constitution) but like many places struggling to close a giant gap between rich and poor, it doesn’t always reach everyone (especially in rural areas) or families aren’t in a position to use the resource (children may not finish school in order to help support the family).
That is why the Hogar school is so special. They provide a high level of education along with all of it’s subsequent opportunities to a group who would not normally have access. In addition to education they offer family support, healthcare and nutrition.
I mentioned above that the school is financed principally by outside sources, with the least coming from student tuitions. Volunteers are a critical part of this and the lead volunteer for the library is nothing short of amazing. In five or so years she’s transitioned the a ‘library’ consisting of one shelf of books from the 1960s to an entire room filled with shelves, tables and over 10,000 books. She has secured book donations, organized book sales (to fund new materials), called children’s libraries for advice and organized a troupe of volunteers to maintain the books. She chose the free software we used to automate the library and made sure all the books had the corresponding barcodes (this is a lot of work!). Sometimes I think the hardest part of her job was fighting for the library’s support and drawing attention to the necessity for a culture valuing reading when there were so many other needs at the school. Not only that, but she had a great point that allowing the students to see how a library functions and the benefits of reading and research prepares them for further education.
Yesterday was the first day that I have been able to visit the library while it was being used by students—normally, I have been working in an office to help with some last minute software issues. Because they have been trying to get the new system up and running, this week was the first that the library has been open since the new year and the excitement was palpable. The students thought it was so cool to see their pictures appear when I scanned their cards. It was also cool to chat with them about their favorite books…did anyone ever read the Goosebumps series? Well, they are still a favorite! As one of the eighth graders was leaving the library he turned to us and said (in English!), “thank you [for] the best day.” I don’t think there is anything I can add to that.
Click here if you want to know a little more about the school—the page is in both English and Spanish. If you’d like to offer support, there are options to make a one time donation or sponsor a student.
*Source: All of my statistics were taken from this 2010 country study of Colombia, prepared by the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress with assistance from Colombian academics and government bodies. It’s research and publication was paid for by the Department of the U.S. Army. Statistics and viewpoints can vary depending on source; the authors acknowledge that their records of displaced persons tend to be higher than those from other sources within Colombia.