Roatan’s Beauty, Truth & Wisdom

A young reader at Sand Castle Library that was once a resort dining are run by the O’Briens.

An Island NGO is Shaping How and How Much Roatan’s Children Read

Afour-wheeled library is coming to a school near you. All thanks to an effort by PIER – Partners in Education Roatan, a small organization started by a Camilla and Ted O’Brien, a pair of retired Americans. To the O’Briens making a transition from earning a living to helping others made sense.

The O’Briens came to Roatan in the mid 1990s to build a Sandy Bay resort: Bay Islands Beach Resort. Then, in 2009 they decided to retire and focus on something they felt passionate about. They told all their friends: “We’re done with the resort, it’s time for education,” said Cam.

They focused on showing Roatan’s children how to see life and build a vision of who they could become. PIER began doing this one book at a time.

PIER is tight organization. Camilla is the coordinator for programs, Ted does the accounting. There are two people in charge of bookmobiles, two education specialists and one librarian. While PIER staff is small, it is young and passionate. “Our goal is to expand kids’ brains via reading. To have them focus on pages instead of screens,” says Lindberg Valladares, the education specialist.

The PIER staff focuses on getting the kids reading. One of their strategies is reading stories to children out loud and showing them hands on science experiments. “Our dream is to create a technology, science, art and math center here,” says Cam. In fact PIER has been adjusting their goals and community involvement since it began operations in 2010.

We’re done with the resort, it’s time for education

Originally the organization focused on building a learning center and a library, foreseen as a vocational school, then it focused on getting the children “hooked on reading.” Now they focus on giving the children hands on experience with science.

Many children in Roatan are missing out at a chance at developing reading skills early and at education in general. Cam says that only 25% of school-aged Roatan children are enrolled in school, only 50% of children finish sixth grade and even fewer, only 10%, graduate from high school. “Our goal is to give teachers new ways of teaching,” says Cam.

Camilla O’Brien at her original Sandy Bay bookmobile.

The bookmobile project began in 2014 and now almost all public schools on Roatan get a regular visit from a mobile library, often the first and only interactions they have with books other than textbooks. Thirteen schools in Santos Guardiola have a regular visit from the book bus, and in Roatan Municipality 15 public schools and Solid Rock private school take part. Cam says that now 85% of all Roatan schoolchildren are Spanish speakers. “The biggest challenge is getting them books in Spanish,” says Cam.

With donations PIER’s annual budget went from $8,000 a year in 2011 to $55,000 in 2017, but getting continued support has been a struggle. The two mobile library buses used by PIER as libraries were originally used to transport schoolchildren in the US, and then they were used for transport on mainland Honduras. Finally, thanks to donations of expats Roy Schneider and Patricia Commel they were purchased for PIER at $12,000 per bus.

The O’Briens still leave their entire social security checks to fund their educational projects and they are living a dream that many retired baby boomers only wish for – a life of purpose.

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