Social Distancing in the Library


By mid-March, we realized Covid-19 had arrived in our tiny fishing village in northern Manabi. The lack of any health system or response services puts us in an extremely vulnerable situation. Our only way out was total and absolute isolation. So we bid our international volunteers good by and sadly shut down the Library. The curfew was at 6 pm, everything came to a complete halt. Birds, mammals, and ocean waves could be heard more clearly than ever.

By the end of May, some parents asked our local volunteers re-open the reading program and help with their children's homework. Bryan (21) and Adriana (27) asked us for paper, crayons, and school resources, set up a couple of tables outdoors and began a tiny school on the sidewalk by the beach. We understood this as a request: the neighbors were in need of Library services.

Since June the Library has opened on a limited schedule, allowing 5 kids to enter at a time, only with a face mask and after washing their hands. Due to our age group, we the founders and directors of the Library decided to stay home, not wanting to risk being the cause of contagion.

So the time had come to let go, to trust our Assistant Librarian Miryam (34), who works full time at the Library while attending night school, and our community promoters, Adriana (27), Bryan (20), and Jose (43), to run the Library without us. Two months after this decision, I sat down with them for a conversation. Let me share their thoughts and conclusions.

Rut: This situation is extremely challenging for everyone; can you think of a specific way this pandemic is testing our Library?

Miryam: The most difficult thing that we face every day is having to turn away the children that enthusiastically come wanting to read or hang out in their Library. We put up a system of reservations where parties of 5 friends come in for an hour at a time. But as you can imagine, kids have a hard time with this system, not only do they lack a sense of time or a watch, but they are upset with this restriction, on top of so many others they already have. They miss the freedom of coming and going through these doors at all times.

Adriana. For me, the most challenging situation is the lack of parental concern about their children's safety. We give away masks every day, only to see the same child come back without a mask. So we give them another mask and explain again why it is important that she wear it. It is very difficult to instruct a child about safety, if at home, they are not asked to do the same.

Rut: So, do you feel at risk coming to work to the Library with the kids?

Miryam: No! not at all. During those first months when everything was locked down, I felt strapped in my tiny house in the housing project, without space to move around or air to breathe. I come here every morning, flip the windows wide open, put on some low calming music and get ready to receive the first group of kids that will wash their hands, wear masks and sit quietly each one at a table, while we help them with homework or reading. It has turned out to be a calming ritual in my routine. It makes me happy to be around them...I'm loving these tranquil days in the Library.

Adriana: I don't feel at risk either, on the contrary, this is a safe place. If you walk around town, you can see many people without a mask, going about as if nothing is happening. I don't suppose they are washing their hands regularly. So, spending my day here at the Library where there is a clean and controlled atmosphere, makes me feel safe. I also live in a tiny house with all my family compressed there. The change of scenery helps me forget the stress of this time. Kids feel the same, that's why they keep registering to come back.

Miryam: Kids feel so happy when they come here, this makes their day. Sometimes it's 12:10 and Adri tells them, ok, girls, time to go home, and they cry out, No! we want to stay a little while longer. But we have to make them leave.

Rut: Let's turn to crisis and opportunity. Any given crisis, no matter how catastrophic, always offers an opportunity for change or growth... What opportunities have you felt this experience of running the Library on your own has offered you on a personal basis?

Adriana: Well, on a personal basis, family communication has deepened, nobody's in a rush to leave the kitchen table. We get to talk and hang out much more. I think everybody is enjoying this.

Miryam: At first, when you told me to go ahead and open the Library on my own, I thought it would be lonely or scary without you. But, honestly and I don't mean it in a bad way, these weeks working with Adriana, Bryan, and Pepe I've grown even closer to them, and we are really enjoying each other. Back when we were operating regularly with international volunteers, they would come in for their English class, browse through some books, and then leave. But now we have time to talk about the days' work, decide things and later sit around and talk about the kids and their progress. I appreciate this time as head of the Library, it makes me feel stronger, my neighbors look up to me.

Rut: That's great! Has this situation made you feel a sense of ownership of this Library?

Adriana: Yep! I feel different now. I know that you kept repeating that this was everybody's Library, but those were just words. Now I really feel that this is mine, it's my responsibility and my privilege to work as a local volunteer.

Miryam: Yeah, I remember one day when Adri said "Oh so now I'm beginning to feel love for this place".

Adriana: Haha.... Yeah, I come here and, it's not only my place; but I feel more like myself when I'm here. And all this is mine!

Another good thing that has come with social distancing is the opportunity for very shy, sensitive kids to surmount their reading disabilities. Take Liz (13) she is shy and scared like a bunny, her friends always protect and intimidate her, to the extent that she has fallen so much behind, she couldn't read. Now, she comes on her own every morning, we have been working with the remedial reading program along with building her self-esteem. When Liz read her first words and recognized the figures and the sounds they made, I think I was more excited than she was. I had seen how the professional teachers, who come as international volunteers did this, but this is the first person I have taught how to read! Liz and I were jumping with excitement together!

Rut: I feel so happy to hear you say this, this is your place where you are growing and helping others grow as well. That was always the plan. We will eventually retire, and you will have to take over. That's why it's so important that you continue to learn English, accounting, and other skills. This time has proven that our Library is autonomous and sustainable. We have been very cautious with our funds. We do not spend on big salaries or assessment charges or other technicalities many charities go through. We invest every cent of our funds to build a sense of ownership that will take over this Library in the years to come.

Adriana: You can count on that, just look at Vinicio (12) this boy practically lives here, he is enamored with the new computers. He is thriving in this distance learning...It's great to see Vinicio do his homework, he opens a program, prints a worksheet, calls his teacher. He is so proficient in all this stuff that you can't believe he is a boy from this little fishing town. He feels at home in the Library.

Miryam: Vinicio is like a sponge, he gets everything very fast, I am so proud of him.

Rut: Yes, and like him, we need to have more and more kids that are engaged with their education. Vinicio is the living prove that, if you offer a young person the support he needs, if you make the resources available, he or she will thrive.

I turn to talk with Vinicio (12) who embodies the bolstering possibilities this Library can offer a young person.

Rut: During these recent months' things have changed dramatically in the Library. Do you miss anything from before this time?

Vinicio: I miss Fridays when the Library was open for games. There would be a big crowd of kids playing board games, chess, and football in the yard. Now, Fridays are quiet, like any other day. On the other hand, it's nice to see the few that come, sit quietly to do their homework.

Rut: How are you doing with distance learning?

Vinicio: I´m doing fine, but that's because I have the computers here in the Library, if I didn't have this I couldn't do it on the phone. It turns off. Now I feel that everything that is here is mine. We all thought that everything was yours and Esteban´s, but now I know this is mine.

Rut: How would this little town be if we had no Library

Vinicio: it would be sad, nowhere to go, nobody would do their homework, just like before, kids would keep repeating the school year.

Rut: When this is over and we can have international volunteers come, what do you want a volunteer to come and teach?

Vinicio: I wish Tadeo or someone like him would come, someone that can teach me how to play really well in my ukulele, teach English and play football with us.