Honduras is among the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. Even before 2020 brought the pandemic and back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes, nearly half of Hondurans lived in poverty. Add climate change, gang violence and unemployment to the mix, and the country’s challenges become even more profound.
Perhaps less widely reported is the toll these crises have on the country’s already-precarious public education system — now shaken by two full years of pandemic closure, with no online option.
The result? Third graders who can’t read, dwindling attendance, and little attention to crumbling infrastructure. All in a country where only one-third of kids make it to high school, and many have parents who don’t read at all.
One non-profit organization is trying to change some of those statistics — one book at a time.
At the Centro Educacion Basica Guatemala in Honduras’ capital, Tegucigalpa, librarian Jacklin Avila Galindo reads “Carmen la Estrella” to a group of boisterous students. The book is about a little girl who loves to sing and dance. But what would be a run-of-the-mill scene in the US is revolutionary in Honduras.
That’s because in this country, children’s books are as rare as the unicorns in Galindo’s story. And that’s where The Chispa Project comes in. Founder Sara Brakhane explains that kids’ books are not only a first for the students who are accustomed to rote learning and textbooks, but also for many teachers. So Chispa is helping schools create libraries, and providing teachers and families with extensive training about how to use books.
“Sometimes people from the United States ask me ‘What methodology are you using?'” Brakhane says. “And we say ‘honestly, the 3-2 method. Three fingers in front, two fingers in back and this is how you hold up a book!”
In other words, even reading aloud to children is new. And the goal isn’t just to improve literacy, although that’s an important one. Ultimately, Chispa — through its libraries and kids’ books — is trying to change the way teachers view education, teaching them to animate students’ creativity and foster critical thinking through books.
“A lot of that isn’t second nature for our teachers because they didn’t grow up with it, but also because they didn’t get it in college,” Brakhane says. “The college itself never thought teachers would have children’s books in their schools.”
Over the last six years, Chispa has distributed 43,000 books and installed libraries in 78 schools. The projects are funded entirely by donations, with a requirement that school communities fundraise about 3% of the cost. That, Brakhane says, creates a sense of ownership and pride even in the poorest schools.
Librarian Galindo says the library at her school has been a game changer. In the cement-walled building, where students don’t have flush toilets, the brightly painted library filled with colorful books makes kids want to be in school.
“Students can relax here,” she says, adding that the new books often highlight aspects of the kids’ culture or characters they’ve seen on TV. She laughs describing older kids who are drawn to “Peppa Pig” books and expresses pride that her students were so enthusiastic about dinosaur books that she had to dig deep into the subject to keep up with them.
Allison, a 14-year-old among the older students in the library, says her favorite new book is a graphic novel about a bully and how a young girl navigates her relationship with her nemesis. She flips quickly through the pages, describing how the young protagonist worries she might vomit during her school presentation. And the best part of the book? She says it’s part of a series — something she never knew existed.
School principal Bernardo Guttierez is proud of what his school is achieving — a refuge for many of the kids whose families can’t provide housing or medicine, let alone books. He also talks about the country’s legacy of violence.
Those realities add to Chispa’s challenges. Gleen Miralda, he group’s educational coordinator, says he’s determined to give kids what he didn’t have when he attended the same schools a decade ago. He talks about the weary buildings, the lack of public investment and the gangs.
“The violence has always been a major part of our country’s history,” Miralda says. “But in the past years, it’s increased.”
That means families have to take their kids out of school, he says, and sometimes leave the country.
“In some zones, gangs control the school,” he says. “They sometimes enter the school during the school day.”
Miralda says the effect on children and on schools is profound, particularly in cases where kids are put to work by gangs.
“They call them banderas … this small informant that can run around unnoticed,” he says, adding that they might also be used to smuggle drugs.
And it’s not just schools they control. Gleen explains that gangs can control entire neighborhoods.
“And by control, I mean who comes into the neighborhood, who goes out. The gang might cancel classes one day because something’s going down in the neighborhood,” Miralda says. “And some of the students themselves are kids of gang members. And of course, those kids have to be accepted into the school even though teachers know who they are.”
The incendiary dynamics are challenging for Chispa.
“Sometimes it’s very internal,” Miralda says. “We might not even know the things that are happening between the authorities and the gang members. A school director might call to make sure we can get through that day. Yes, it’s risky, but it’s complicated.”
Yet when asked whether the risks are worth the danger, Miralda answers “Truly, yes.”
Other obstacles Chispa faces are less delicate but still complicated. Among them is getting books into disparate rural regions where handfuls of students learn in multi-age school rooms. These settings may lack electricity and cell phone service. And getting there is tricky as well since roads are frequently impassable and villages can be 20 or more miles apart.
The solution? Think “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” except in this case, it’s a series of backpacks. Dunia Estrada is Chispa’s technical coordinator and architect of the simple idea: putting a pile of books into a backpack and distributing one to every teacher in a region.
“Those teachers will then exchange or rotate their backpacks every two weeks to a month. And this is how, for example, in one of our school systems, we’ve been able to get 800 different books to 500 different students,” Estrada says. “And that’s why we call it a traveling library.”
On the other side of Tegucigalpa, principal Ana Joaquina Garcia at the Centro Educativo China says it’s important to understand that the school’s new library is keeping kids in school. She tells the story of a mother from her disadvantaged neighborhood who was forced to move for economic reasons, yet she tried to commute back to school with her three children for months.
“She tried to do it…because of the library space, because of the opportunities,” she says. “Kids don’t want to leave.”
Garcia adds that she was recently visited by officials from Honduras’ Department of Education. They wanted to find out more about the library and innovative teaching.
Back at the Chispa headquarters — a small bungalow-style house — founder Brakhane sits at a long table covered in books. In the living room, 120 boxes (about 6,000 titles) are waiting to be unpacked; shelves lining the walls are filled with picture books, chapter books, board books and more.
Still, keeping up with the demand is impossible.
“None of these schools necessarily deserves these books more than another,” Brakhane says, adding that he waiting list for a library is now two to three years, while Chispa can only complete about 10 a year. Each library costs about $15,000, including the books, training, maintenance and setup.
In a country with overwhelming need, Brakhane recognizes that there’s only so much Chispa can do. Yet she’s not discouraged.
“In English, there’s the story of the stranded starfish,” she says and goes on to describe the tale of a little girl who throws a starfish back into the sea after a storm — leaving thousands of others still stranded on the sand. When someone asks how that will make a difference, she answers that she “made a difference for that one.”
In Spanish, Brakhane continues, the analogy is to grains of sand — that it takes single grains to build a sandcastle.
“So we are going to keep fighting to put down our grain of sand,” she says.
In Spanish “chispa” means spark: “The spark from a fire, or the chocolate chips, chispas, that you put in a cookie,” she says. “But it’s also used to describe a person. So someone having spark means that they’re a person who is going to go out and do bigger things. That they have the excitement for life. And we know that our kids have that. There’s not an ultimate goal. And there’s maybe not an end in sight.”
Brakhane pauses before adding quietly, “But this is our grain of sand. And we’re going to fight for that.”