By: Devin Vanderpool, LiveBeyond Education Director & ESL/Literacy Teacher
If you can read this, you are among the world’s privileged. Not because I am a fantastic writer and you are blessed to read my works, but because you have the blessing of literacy.
I have been able to read as long as I remember. One of my first memories is a feeling of anger and resentment at the Hooked on Phonics program my mother had encouraged me to use that day. I thought it was too easy and a waste of my time. I wanted to be playing outside, rather than listening and practicing with the tapes.
I realize I have always been very blessed by my reading abilities. My brother, one of the smartest people I know, struggled with dyslexia. By third grade I was reading on a college grade-level. Even if I didn’t know some words I could use a dictionary to find their meaning or use context clues to decipher them. I can read backwards, upside down and in any color. Words easily grasp my attention. Books are some of my favorite and closest friends.
Which is why I can’t imagine living in a world without any.
When I first began traveling with LiveBeyond to Haiti shortly after the earthquake in 2010, I quickly began to realize just how much of the population was illiterate. We used translators help in our medical clinics, and they would fill out forms for every patient. Many did not know how to spell their own name, let alone how old they were. The children in the orphanage we support were successful readers and writers because they attended a good school. But most of the people who worked for our organization outside of the professional translators were completely illiterate.
As soon as I moved to Haiti I set up a Haitian Creole literacy program. I wasn't very good at speaking Creole yet, but the language system is strictly phonetic, so once I learned the spelling and speaking patterns it wasn’t too difficult. Each letter my students learned was a huge milestone. These are adults, beyond the years of childhood “sponge” learning. Each new word is still a struggle for many of my students. But the improvements I have seen reach far beyond what I can describe.
One student always stands out in my mind. *Camille is one of my favorite people. We have nothing in common: race, economic status, country, language, etc, but her kindness and her spirit break down all barriers. The joy that she brings to my life and many others will never be quenched. In her mid-fifties, she is a loving wife, mother, and grandmother. After a few months of hard work during her lunch hour each day, she learned to write her name. She now signs receipts with laughs of glee and was able to sign her own baptism certificate.
But my best story about her includes her son, *Jan. He had received a baptism certificate but accidentally left it at the LiveBeyond base due to all the excitement of his special day. About a week later, one of Camille’s friends found the certificate and brought it to Camille to read it to find out who she should return it to. The jumps and shouts and laughs that came out of the room brought me running. Once I got the story out of the women that had gathered we all laughed and cried with pride at sweet Camille’s new ability to read her son’s name.
Kids in Haiti often look to each other for spelling of their own names because their illiterate parents gave them names without knowing how to spell them. This was the case for sweet Camille. Most mothers in America can’t fathom that. They scrutinize names for months and monogram baby blankets. To not know how to spell one’s child’s name is absolutely unheard of.
My inspiration is that maybe that will one day be true in Haiti.
My plans are to build a library that becomes a place of learning and research for all Haitians. It will have a translation center, reading stations, literacy programs for adults, language classes as well as theological, agricultural, and medical research centers. I imagine people gathering to discuss new books and ideas in a safe place. I imagine mothers bringing their children in to look through books, spreading a love of knowledge on to future generations. I want people to have a place to learn for themselves and to be able to improve themselves at their own pace.
Job opportunities are limited for the illiterate. You can easy fall prey to scams or threats when you can’t recognize your name in print. This is a problem that should not exist. I hate that it does. So under the Lord’s guidance I have made this my problem to fix here, my problem to take care of and claim as my responsibility. I know that through my efforts I can encourage Haitians join me to eradicate this problem for themselves and for their country. I already have many Haitians and Americans joined in the effort. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for this country and this issue.