Reading Owls provides Jamaican children access to books

Reading Owls provides Jamaican children access to books

Reading Owls board member Elissa O’Bryant, above, sifts through books at the donated warehouse space the nonprofit works out of in Warwick, where literature is carefully selected to make sure the books will enrich students’ literacy skills and are of new or ‘like new’ quality.
Cumberland woman hopes to strengthen reading culture in poor, rural towns

CUMBERLAND – The first time Elaine Dickson of Cumberland walked up the staircase leading into the Boston Public Library, tears flowed down her cheeks.

She’d never seen such a thing – a beautiful building, taking up an entire block, dedicated to reading. Dickson had grown up in Jamaica and knows what it means to yearn for books. She walked 6 miles on her journey to and from the closest library when she was growing up. Her school, 3 miles away, had no library.

For her, reading was not only informative and addicting, it was also an escape.

“Books transported me to the places that I couldn’t go to,” she said, recalling her fond memories of curling up with books her father had, or ones she picked out at the library – though most of the time, the library had the same small selection of books every week.

Now 47, Dickson has a mission: put books into the hands of children in Jamaica; start and strengthen the reading culture in communities; and build libraries.

So far, thousands of new or “like new” books have been donated to schools in the country, and multiple capital projects have been developed, where crews built libraries from scratch after Dickson, her husband, Easton, also a Jamaican native, and a few friends of theirs launched Reading Owls International in 2013.

Dickson, who now has four children of her own, moved to the United States when she was about 19 years old in the 1990s. After visiting Jamaica and seeing that children still had no access to books, “it reached a point where we said, ‘OK, we can bemoan it, or we can do something about it.’ ”

The process of getting books to the remote towns in Jamaica is complex, Dickson said, and expensive, at that.

A truck comes to the nonprofit’s warehouse in Warwick, Dickson said, a space donated to the organization, where pallets of books are then brought to either a New York or New Jersey port. From there, the books are transported by sea over the course of a week to Jamaica, where a customs broker gets the books through customs before an “administer of education” looks the books over. Finally, a trucking company moves the books to the schools that Reading Owls services.

By the time the books have made their way to the remote towns, Dickson said, the process has amounted to thousands of dollars.

But the nonprofit doesn’t donate just any book to schools. It’s common, Dickson said, for countries in Africa and parts of Jamaica to become “dump sites” where books no one wants any longer are donated, and have missing pages or are torn.

The volunteers of Reading Owls are very deliberate when picking books that are shipped to Jamaica, she said, and have quality and sustainability in mind. They look for books that include historical fiction, so children are learning facts while reading a story, show diversity, or help children “see the world.”

The books should also act as “mirrors and doors” for children, Dickson said, where kids can see themselves and others in the literature. It’s not just a matter of sifting through piles of books to keep a tally of how many are being sent over, but reading through each of the books to make sure they’re appropriate and enrich a child’s literacy skills.

The more appealing the books, Dickson said, the more likely it is that children will become truly engaged in reading and want to take one from the shelves. Since many of the schools that Reading Owls works with represent up to 12 different communities, because not every town has a school facility, the nonprofit reaches a wide audience.

She said her hometown in Jamaica was similar to rural Cumberland, though much more remote. Growing up, none of her friends’ families had a car, and Dickson walked everywhere she went. It was commonplace.

Giggling, she said, “You could lie in the middle of the road in the day … no cars.”

While she said she was at least fortunate enough to read some books her father had and took out literature from the library three towns away, most children in Jamaica are not being read to or exposed to reading culture.

“If home is not a base, if your school doesn’t have a library, if your town doesn’t have a library, then you have no access point,” she said, and spoke of her experiences working in Jamaican schools.

At a 2,700-student high school Reading Owls partnered with in Lucea, the capital of Hanover, some students at Rusea’s High School had never heard of Hitler, or the Holocaust when Dickson first visited the school when she returned to Jamaica. The English department there, Dickson explained, had a great deal of students that could write, but didn’t have any lyricism to their work.

While a history teacher is able to discuss world events like the Holocaust, Dickson said, students can also read material about World War II and read a storyline that keeps them engaged if they’re given the right books.

Some of the Jamaican schools that Reading Owls works with, Dickson said, have also partnered with members of the Peace Corps, a partnership that Dickson said is especially meaningful to her.

Dickson remembers her experience during her school days in Jamaica when Peace Corps volunteers worked with her and her fellow classmates. About 30 years later, she said, her gratitude for those workers is just as strong.

Watching children enter schools she visits, Dickson said, brings her back to her childhood days. Like the day she saw the Boston Public Library for the first time, she cries.

“I can’t help myself, because I think … that kid was me.”

This year, Reading Owls is focusing on five different projects at schools – one of which is Esher Primary School in western Jamaica, where a new library is slated to open Dec. 1.

By the end of those projects, Dickson said, the nonprofit will have reached about 4,500 students in at least 15 different communities. But that’s just where their work begins, she told The Breeze.

The organization stays directly involved with the schools for three years, to make sure the reading culture starts with a strong foundation and it continues to strengthen. Aside from donations, Dickson said, the nonprofit is always looking for volunteers, and those interested can visit www.readingowlsinternational.com , or call 1-415-779-6957 (OWLS).

Dickson speaks of Reading Owls International’s mission, with a giggle: “It’s ambitious,” she says.

Jamaican native Elaine Dickson, a Cumberland resident, has collected thousands of books for schools in her home country, where Reading Owls International, a nonprofit she started with a group in 2013, distributes books for children in remote towns and organizes the construction of libraries. (Breeze photo by Brittany Ballantyne)
Above, a student at Arthur Wint Basic School in Lucea, Hanover of western Jamaica, reads a book at her school. Growing up, Cumberland resident Elaine Dickson remembers walking three towns over to get to the nearest library, and says much hasn’t changed in Jamaica. Her mission is to provide books to schools in the country, and strengthen the reading culture.
A student at Lucea Infant School in Lucea, Hanover in western Jamaica, holds up a book donated by Reading Owls International, a nonprofit that donates thousands of books to remote schools in the country and builds libraries to promote reading culture.