Linda Smith and Reading Promoters start the school year

September 15, 2011

Linda Smith ('95) Finds her Life's Work in Guatemala

Launches Reading Village to promote literacy and self-sufficiency

Linda Smith ('95) first traveled to Guatemala in 1988. She was between jobs and eager to learn Spanish. A friend had suggested Guatemala saying that the Spanish spoken there is beautiful and spoken slowly with all the letters clearly pronounced. She spent three months living with a family in Antigua, Guatemala and traveling around the country. Unknowingly, Linda's experiences in Guatemala would become the foundation for her life's work.

Upon returning to the U.S., Linda taught school for a while and then started a small business importing clothing and crafts from Guatemala. "I worked with families of artisans and sold woven shirts, pants, belts, purses and similar items," she says. "That's when I first realized that perhaps there was a place for me in the business world."

Motivated to make a difference in the world, Linda enrolled at UCLA and earned an MBA as well as an M.A. in Latin American Studies. "While I was there, I really made a commitment to do something with my skills and education to benefit some of those two billion people on the planet without water, electricity or educational opportunities. This was in the Nineties with the rainforests coming down acres at a time. I thought I might get involved with microenterprise or environmental sustainability in Latin America."

After graduating, Linda took a job with a small solar energy company in the Northwest and gained experience helping the firm move from a start-up to a professionally-managed organization. And she continued to look for an opportunity to work in Latin America. "A few things arose," she says, "but nothing panned out." Then, she unexpectedly found herself without a job.

"That little voice inside my head said, 'Linda, stop waiting for an opportunity. Go make it happen.' So that's what I did."

Linda started networking in Latin America and things came together most quickly in Guatemala. "I spent a month there visiting projects -- everything from alternative energy to sustainable agriculture to women's reproductive health and microfinance." She soon determined that literacy was the fundamental requirement for change.

"I walked into a rare children's library and saw two little girls learning to read," she says. "Their eyes were bright and I could see the difference between them and other Guatemalan children. Many of the NGOs in Guatemala were doing things to help people. But I could see that literacy was a way of empowering people to help themselves."

So Linda surveyed literacy programs around the country. "It was glaringly obvious that access to books was a major barrier to literacy -- but not a complete solution," she says. Not finding a position with any existing program, she decided to start her own. She called it Reading Village.

"I was in my early 40s when this idea struck me," she recalls. "I had run a business before and knew how much energy it takes. I wondered if I had it in me but, honestly, when it's the work of your heart, you're energized by it."

Veterans of several literacy programs offered to serve on her advisory board. The first initiative they undertook was to start a book bank to donate Spanish language children's books to schools, libraries and orphanages. "Fifty children's storybooks are a treasure trove to them," she says.

The second initiative was to train adults to promote reading in their communities. "I could see that where there was an adult reading to children, a culture of literacy developed," she says. In 2009, Linda and her board determined that the village of Concepción had the right profile for a literacy program. So they decided to bring a donation of books and hold reading activities with children, parents and teachers.

In talking with community leaders, Linda decided to train teenagers, rather than adults, as reading promoters. That was the beginning of what she now calls the Leaders and Readers Program. Now in its third year, the program has 15 teen reading promoters in Concepción. The program has also been introduced in the village of Pujujil where there are currently nine reading promoters -- each of whom spends at least three hours a week hosting reading activities.

The teens are trained and mentored by a full-time Program Coordinator named Daniel Guzmán who is Guatemalan. He helps them develop as individuals, as reading promoters and as leaders.

This year, three of Linda's original reading promoters will graduate from high school. This is a significant accomplishment -- particularly for the two girls. One of the girls and the boy will take state-sponsored exams in the hope of finding employment as elementary school teachers. The other girl hopes to be an accountant.

"I will never forget my first interview with one of these students," says Linda. "Rosmery was so shy that she could barely look me in the eye or speak loud enough for me to hear. But she told me she wanted to be a teacher and to show that a girl can be something in this world. It was so moving to hear that. Over these past three years, Rosmery has just blossomed. Now she can read to a group in an animated way so that kids are rapt with attention. She's using her voice, gestures, songs and activities to make it really fun for the kids. When see walks through town, they call out to her, 'Rosmery, read me a story.'"

After Rosmery's first year in the Leaders and Readers Program, her mother died. "I was sure her father was going to pull her out of school and send her off to work," Linda recalls. "When a very poor family is hit with medical and funeral debt, they often go right over the edge. But her father has become her biggest supporter. She told me that he actually scooted her out in the morning to go to workshops. He tells her he's proud of her -- which is rare in that culture. He sees that she has a profession in front of her and that she can earn money for the family. That is part of what were hoping the program would accomplish."

"We're teaching a love of reading, which creates a virtuous circle," she continues. "When people love to read -- they read more. When they read more -- they read better. And it just goes on."

The Leaders and Readers Program has grown each year, but the U.S. economy has been challenging and Linda is looking to develop new alliances. "We need to build our infrastructure to reach more communities," she says. "We've got our model down and we see the power of it. So we need to expand. Our goal is to be in 30 communities by 2020." In addition to recruiting more reading promoters, Linda also hopes to mobilize a network of alumni promoters who continue to advance a culture of reading in their communities.

One way of spreading the word about the program is by inviting interested guests on a Learning Journey. Several times each year, Linda hosts a week-long tour highlighting the culture, history and landscape of Guatemala. In addition to shopping, dining and visiting Mayan sites, participants help Linda host a Reading Fiesta in one of the villages.

A glimpse into the future of the program came at the end of a recent reading event in Concepción. "We were getting ready to leave," she recalls, "and some of the teenagers announced they had formed an action committee with a president, vice president and treasurer. They said that since they were creating such a great demand for books -- they really wanted to build a library. That was a great moment for me because it confirmed that if we create a love of reading and a community decides they want a library, they will figure out how to build and sustain it. The teen leadership is growing and impacting the community in bigger ways than I ever imagined."

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