The bell is struck with a small mallet, giving off a loud “clang!” to start the weekly Rotary Club meeting. We sit at a long table in a well-lit restaurant that opens to the beach of San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, passing around a notebook and signing our names to indicate that we are in attendance. Immediately after she puts down the mallet, Jane Mirandette begins discussing the top items on her agenda. Topics such as water filtration systems and scholarship programs are considered in an unusual and confusing mixture of Spanish and English. As the blue and yellow Rotary International flag flaps wildly in the ocean breeze, I study the lapel pin that has been passed to me with interest. According to Mirandette, this is the first time that the Club Rotario San Juan del Sur has received pins with Spanish writing embellished on them, rather than English. The colorful globe reads “Enriquece el mundo”, which translates to “Enrich the world”. This is precisely what Jane Mirandette and her library organization, the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca, do every single day in the small town of San Juan del Sur.
Mirandette originally moved to Nicaragua upon retirement and opened a small bed and breakfast in San Juan del Sur, which is still in operation today. As part of the hotel’s services, Mirandette kept a shelf full of books in different languages for her guests to read. When she noticed that the hotel staff members would read the books out on the patio, Mirandette suggested that they borrow them. This suggestion shocked the employees, as the concept of loaning out books was foreign to them, and inspired Mirandette to try to solve the issue of the lack of available books in the community. The San Juan del Sur Biblioteca, which opened in November 2001, is credited as the first lending library in all of Nicaragua. Previously, no libraries existed that would allow guests to take books home, for fear of not getting any back. This proved not to be an issue for the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca, which has maintained close to a 90% return rate for their 12,000+ books, a percentage that compares favorably to libraries in the United States. The library is a small, blue-and-white building that sits on the corner of the street, right across from a small, central park and a large Catholic church. It has a wide array of books, from crime thrillers to picture books to romance novels. Most are in Spanish, as 4,800 primarily Spanish-speaking locals held cards at the library as of 2008, with numbers growing in recent years. However, some of the picture books are bilingual ,and there is a variety of novels in English for the tourists who frequent the town (a popular surfing spot). Free wifi and computer use are two more aspects of the library that draw visitors, as well as a small room filled with stuffed animals, hopscotch rugs, and arts and crafts for local children to play with. Groups of kids come before and after school, teenagers sit in front of the row of computers, and adults wander in the blue doors to browse the shelves or work on projects. The library is rarely empty, and it has become an important part of San Juan del Sur.
In 2003, “Señora Jane” (as Mirandette is known to most of the staff) started a new project: the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca Móvil, a mobile library that travels to schools in the general area of San Juan del Sur. Now, 12 years after the program began, the Biblioteca Móvil travels to 35 different locations, and Mirandette says five more schools could be included if there were more money to fund the project and if there were another vehicle that the Biblioteca Móvil could use. Often traveling over long distances on rough roads, members of the staff and occasional volunteers head to nearby and far removed schools to lend books out to students.
This is the only source of books in many villages, as some are in remote locations hours from San Juan del Sur. The Biblioteca Móvil has over 5,000 books that are constantly in circulation, and it is clear when the white pick-up truck pulls up to the schoolyard and the bins of books are unloaded that this is an event that the children look forward to. Since there are so many locations that the Biblioteca Móvil travels to regularly, each community is visited about once a month, by which point most of the students have already devoured their allotted books and are excited to read more. The positive impact that the Biblioteca Móvil has on the children is undeniable, as they race out of their classrooms, spend a long time carefully selecting a satisfactory book, and line up eagerly to check out. More than 3,800 library cards have been issued to children and other residents by the Biblioteca Móvil, and the numbers grow with each visit as shy students wait in line to receive their very first library card. It’s a satisfying feeling to watch a child walk back to their classroom in their school uniforms, clutching Magda’s Piñata Magic or Las Rosas Inglesas along with their new green library cards.
And the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca is more than just a library— all kinds of programs are associated with the organization. Mirandette is also the founder and president of the Hester J. Hodges Libraries for All Program (HJH Program), which has supported the library in San Juan del Sur since 2003. In addition, the HJH Program promotes lending libraries throughout Central America. According to Mirandette, there are 60 “Library in a Box Recipient” systems, where schools, faith-based groups, and other organizations receive starter collections of books, access to information, training programs, and a model for sustainable lending in order to establish their own community libraries. The HJH Fellowship Program sponsors Nicaraguan students who, according to the Summer 2015 Newsletter, “Know what it takes to make a difference!” The program has funded university studies for people interested in nursing, medicine, journalism, and engineering. The local Rotary Club, which was accepted into the family of International Rotary Clubs in June 2013, aids the people of San Juan del Sur in various ways. They work hard to promote health care in the community, help with education by providing school supplies and uniforms, and support local orphanages and schools for the handicapped. One of the largest projects that they are undertaking involves providing clean water for schools through the use of water filters, as handwashing sinks are not available at many schools in Nicaragua, and sanitary water is not always accessible. The success of the library and affiliated programs so far has not always been an easy battle, however. The HJH Program is the only organization that directly funds the library, though there are many individual and corporate donors that aid the project, and volunteers from around the US travel to Nicaragua to assist in various ways. The San Juan del Sur Biblioteca is “very much in need of funding and donations to support the library, mobile project and the other local projects like our University scholarship program and the… handicapped groups and orphanages we help support,” according to Mirandette.
The San Juan del Sur Biblioteca is undoubtedly changing the lives of everyone who interacts with the organization, and anyone can get involved and help the program grow and thrive. For more information, as well as the opportunity to donate, visit http://www.librariesforall.org/donations/.
Click HERE to read about Collegiate’s most recent student trip to Nicaragua.