A few Niagara-on-the-Lake residents are giving students in Jamaica the gift of reading — one book at a time.
Over the coming weeks, more than 3,300 donated books will be en route to six schools in Jamaica.
“I believe literacy is something that really holds the world up,” said Betty Knight, one of the organizers of the project.
On Monday, 32 boxes of books were secured to pallets and stored in farmer Abe Epp’s packing barn.
Soon, the boxes will be picked up by Food For The Poor Canada, a charitable organization that aims to improve the lives of people across the Caribbean and Latin America.
Dave Hunter, Tracey Dau and Stuart McCormick, as well as Coun. Gary Burroughs, were among those who were part of Monday’s process.
Literacy has always been important to Knight and she believes everybody should have the opportunity to learn how to read and write.
She recalled how, on her 50th birthday, she was in Sierra Leone, West Africa, helping to build a school.
“That journey taught me that building a building, it’s just a building. It’s what’s inside that building that counts,” she said.
Knight has been leading this project with Hunter for four years now.
The two met while serving on the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library’s board from 2018 to 2022.
They were inspired by Epp, who decided he wanted to help bring literacy to more schools in Jamaica after visiting a school during a trip to the island many years ago.
Knight and Hunter decided to build on this idea, got Epp involved and started collecting books.
The most recent data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics shows that in 2014, Jamaica’s adult literacy rate – the share of adults aged 15 and older who can read and write – was 88.1 per cent.
That a rate has been increasing over the years – in 1999, adult literacy was just 79.9 per cent.
They reached out to libraries across the region to see what they did with their discarded books and if they would contribute.
Libraries in NOTL, Grimsby, Fort Erie and Welland provided books that otherwise would have been given away.
For the last few years, Hunter and Knight have been working with professors Hope Mayne and Leonie Clarke from the University of Technology in Kingston, Jamaica.
Together, the pair pick out schools in Jamaica, typically in rural areas, that are in need of supplies.
After that, Food For The Poor Canada – with whom Hunter and Knight have been working for two years – picks up the boxes and ships them to Jamaica. Once there, Food For The Poor Jamaica delivers them to the schools.
Other people in NOTL are contributing in their own ways. Andrew Niven from Konzelmann Estate Winery, for example, donated the boxes in which the books are packed, Knight said.
This year, six of the 32 boxes will be going to Hague Primary and Infant School thanks to Dau, who’s also a volunteer at the Farmworker Hub in Virgil.
About five years ago, Dau volunteered at the Peach Pickers Picnic for farmworkers, where she met five Jamaican workers.
They’re all very close friends still, she said.
When she visited two of them this past January in Jamaica, she met one of their daughters who works in the education system.
The woman reached out to Dau a few months later and explained that her school, Hague Primary and Infant School, doesn’t have a library.
She asked Dau if she would help bring in proper supplies and books so that they can build one.
Dau didn’t hesitate and started to collect as many books and supplies as she could — and she was very successful.
She reached out to the Buy Nothing Niagara-on-the-Lake Facebook group and ended up getting boxes of donations, she said.
“I think it ended up being like 500 or 600 books, and then somebody donated – I want to say it was – almost 40 brand new sets of Crayola pencil crayons,” she said.
She also got dozens of notebooks, pens and pencils to send over.
However, she wasn’t sure how to get the supplies to Jamaica until another volunteer told her about Knight.
“I reached out to her and she was more than happy to help out,” said Dau.
During Knight’s volunteer work in Sierra Leone, she said she was able to see the difference reading makes in people’s lives.
“Even bringing books into schools, these kids then take the books home. And it may be the only time any kind of written material arrives inside their home,” she said.
Literacy in developing nations countries is different than it is here, Knight said.
Data from the Institute for Statistics shows the countries where adult literacy rates are 60 per cent or less are primarily in West and Central Africa and South Asia.
She hopes to help give more people, including adults, the opportunity to read, noting, “You can change the world, not the whole world, but the part you touch.”
Somer Slobodian, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report