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From St. Louis to Guyana, Rupununi Learners brings literacy one school library at a time

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 20, 2009 - From thousands of miles away, Alice Layton is planning the next book shipment to Guyana. She is the picture of a 21st-century entrepreneur, working at coffee shops and from her home in St. Louis -- and communicating with colleagues in the South American country primarily through instant messaging and e-mail.

Layton relies heavily on her internet connection but is also used to being entirely unconnected. A former resident of Guyana, she has spent time in villages without electricity, let alone broadband access.

It wasn't until several years ago, when Layton began scoping out the school in Guyana her 4-year-old son would attend, that she noticed something else lacking: books and other resources for students packed into a one-room schoolhouse.

"My visit to that school changed my life," Layton said. "The school was so under-resourced and teachers had little training. I thought, 'This is a problem'."

That experience motivated Layton to study rural libraries and collect picture books for the village school. What began as a one-woman goodwill project has blossomed into an operation that spans two countries and has the lofty aim of raising literacy in the Rupununi region of Guyana, where primary school completion rates have long sagged. The organization, Rupununi Learners, has attracted the attention of St. Louis residents who contribute money and serve on the nonprofit's board of trustees.

Layton, a social worker who moved to St. Louis 13 years ago, first began traveling to Guyana along with her then-husband, a St. Louis Zoo employee who was studying the black caiman reptile, the largest of all alligators. The region, popular with ecologists because of its pristine environment, is often referred to as "the land of giants" because of its bevy of species, such as anteaters, armadillos, snakes and spiders, that are the largest of their kind in the world.

As her husband was conducting his research, Layton worked with the headmaster of the village school and familiarized herself with the Makushi, the largest indigenous group in the area. The question facing Layton was how an outsider could best address the issue of literacy.

Her answer was to focus on building school libraries. Since early 2005, four libraries -- three in classrooms and one for the public with internet access -- have been built in the village of Yupukari. Other villages expressed interest after seeing the first school library. Thanks to an Austin-based book donor, six other Rupupuni villages now have classroom libraries like Yupukari's. Thousands of English-language books, films and other supplies fill the shelves. Many of the books come from American public libraries that have discarded them through the weeding process.

So far, literacy has been defined as English-language literacy, given that English is the official language of Guyana and is used in classrooms. Makushi, the language of the indigenous majority in the Rupununi region, only recently has had a written language, and few Makushi speakers can read or write their language.

The Rupununi Learners Foundation, the U.S. arm of the organization, is hoping to provide funding so that its Guyanese partner, Rupupuni Learners Inc., can develop a curriculum that includes instruction in Makushi as a written language for young students.

In addition to delivering books and school supplies, part of the project is to train village teachers to teach reading in English. The goal, Layton said, is to help the teachers improve their results by sending the books and supplies with accompanying training in using them effectively.

Rupununi Learners recently won a $25,000 prize that Washington University awards for social entrepreneurship and innovation. The organization's business plan is for a program in which students would pay to take part in web-based classes in a variety of disciplines, field projects in environmental studies and service learning in the form of teaching English as a second language. Several colleges are awaiting approval to send their students, and this year education students at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., are set to come to Guyana for this program.

The plan is to raise money for expansion into other villages, shipping books and school supplies, among other things.

Then there's an ecotourism program run by Rupununi Learners Inc., the nonprofit corporation that was founded in 2007. Visitors stay at a guesthouse built by villagers and shadow scientists as they go on boat trips to research caiman.

"You go out at night and shine a light to find the caiman," Layton said. "Visitors in a follow boat come up onto a sand bank. They can touch the animals, and observe the weighing and measuring of the caiman."

The Guyana arm of the nonprofit has a board and membership entirely composed of Rupununi village residents. Rupununi Learners has six full-time paid employees who live in the village. Everyone involved who lives in St. Louis is a volunteer, including Layton, who is president of the Rupununi Learners Foundation.

Many board members in St. Louis (one of whom is Beacon staff writer Kristen Hare) either work or have worked in library sciences (Layton has a master's degree in library science and works part time at the St. Louis Public Library) or are former Peace Corps members, such as Hare. Board member Jeff Huestis is both. He is associate dean of university libraries for technology at Washingon University and a Peace Corps alum who served in Nepal and who has returned in recent years on a Fulbright grant.

Huestis said he appreciates the ability to use his knowledge in both library sciences and international affairs. "For other organizations, being involved means just giving money," he said. "One aspect of being based locally is that I have a little more opportunity to be more meaningfully involved."

Layton said she has long been interested in helping villagers have the tools needed to advocate for conservation. The more literate Rupununi residents are, she said, the more they can participate in discussions about what happens to the region's natural resources.

"If they don't have access to the majority language, how are they going to take their role as managers of the environments that they already own?" she said.