The Roatan Bookmobile
by Turk Pipkin, Nobelity Project
When the Roatan Bookmobile parks along the seashore at Flowers Bay, a throng of students gather excitedly at the entrance of Thomas McField School in Honduras. Painted with a mural of kids reading and colorful seaside scenes, the bus is a rolling advertisement for the joy of books and the power of education.
Framed in the door of the school, a dozen kids wave at Sam, Brenda and Karen, the bookmobile teachers who bring 4,000 books and a world of learning to this small seaside community and a dozen more schools on the island. Within minutes, Sam is escorting students to the bus in small groups, each holding a book to return in exchange for another. Moving down the long wooded bookshelves, boys and girls search for just off right book to check out. There are hundreds of kids at Thomas McField School, and they are all waiting for a book.
Roatan is one of the Bay Islands of Honduras, a beautiful spot with incredible reefs and a fast growing population. Like all of Honduras, the school system here is under-funded and under-staffed - gaps the Honduran government is working to close. They have a long ways to go. Less than 20% of Roatan's young people graduate from high school.
Two years ago, I was invited to visit the island and consider whether our nonprofit, The Nobelity Project (www.nobelity.org), could help fill some small part of a very large need. My first school visit was the remote fishing village of Crawfish Rock, where four relatively new classrooms were jammed with smiling kids who seemed delighted to be in school, despite the lack of mosquito screens or a drop-ceiling than would help keep the classrooms cooler than the 100 degree temps. Other than textbooks, each of them shared by two or three students, there were no books in sight.
Lack of books and inadequate infrastructure are not the only challenges in the island's schools. To learn about the need for more and
better-qualified teachers, I met Cam and Ted O'Brien, a retired American couple who'd turned their small dive resort into the island's only community library.
"Until two years ago, the qualification to teach fifth grade here," Cam told me, "was to have graduated from the fifth grade."
Cam had trained several teachers who were doing a great job with kids who lived near the library, but Roatan is a sizable island with many remote communities, and very few of the kids on the island can make the journey to SandCastle Library.
Cam wanted to build a bookmobile that would carry books to the kids and better-trained teachers who could spend a few hours each day as visiting teachers, a benefit for the kids they'd teach and the local teachers who could watch and improve their own teaching skills.
The Nobelity Project had already built computer labs and libraries at a number of schools in rural Kenya. And we'd shipped tens of thousands of donated books to fill them. We loved the idea of a bookmobile, both as a practical means of getting kids reading and as a means to create excitement in learning.
In early 2013, we announced a design competition for an artist to create a colorful and culturally relevant paint job for an old Bluebird School Bus Cam had located in mainland Honduras. A body shop in Roatan replaced the old seats with wooden bookshelves. A book drive in Texas soon collected 4 pallets of books for the library and bookmobile.
First prize for the winner of the design competition was a trip to Roatan to paint our new bus. In April 2013, the winning artist and other volunteers all gathered at SandCastle Library for a marathon weekend of art, books and island culture. Local partners on Roatan - The Markwasi Foundation, Roatan Children's Fund and others - helped fund teacher salaries. A golf tournament at Pristine Bay Resort funded new tires, fuel and more.
In May 2013, the bus started rolling down the roads of Roatan, attracting lots of attention as a beautiful rolling billboard for the idea of books, libraries and improved education.
Almost a year later, the bibliobus/bookmobile is on a regular schedule, visiting a dozen schools on the island, carrying 4,000 books at a time which are checked out by excited kids at school after school after school.
"The bookmobile is the greatest thing that's ever happened for Roatan education," Cam O'Brien told me last week.
Checking in at the schools last week on Roatan, I found kids reading and sharing their library books before school, on lunch breaks and after classes. In a very short time, I've seen kids progress from struggling to read to loving to read.
Worldwide, there are an estimated 250 million kids without access to books. On Roatan, the bookmobile has helped reduce that number by several thousand kids. And if SandCastle Library can find funding for a second, smaller bus to visit even more remote schools on the eastern half of the island, we'll be much closer to every kid on the island having the access to books, a fundamental building block of education.
Many of the books on the Roatan bookmobile and at our school libraries in Kenya are donated by students in the U.S., a program illustrated in our Thousand Books for Hope video. Rather than asking for volume donations, we ask for one or more of a donor's favorite books, with a personal note written inside the cover, a message that connects kids to the U.S. with kids in lands far away.
Just as those donated books can be the beginning of a lifetime of learning, they can also be the beginnings of a lifetime of sharing.
"Give a book, give a buck. Share your love."
Wednesday, April 16 is National Bookmobile Day in the U.S., and a perfect time to remember that books - and bookmobiles - can change lives. To learn more about The Nobelity Project's education work in Kenya, Honduras and the U.S., go to www.nobelity.org
Turk Pipkin is the Founder of the Nobelity Project.