On May 28, 2009, Jenna Houts’ dream of joining the Peace Corps was realized when she left her friends and family in Cardiff-by-the-Sea en route to Paraguay to serve as a community economic development volunteer.
For the first three months she lived with a host family while she went through language studies, technical training in a variety of Peace Corps development service areas, and cultural integration training. During this time she also had the opportunity of interacting with experienced volunteers.
“We learned a lot about recognizing problem areas in different institutions and groups in a community and possible sustainable projects that we could implement,” she said. “We focused a lot during training about the idiosyncrasies of trying to fit into a Paraguayan community as an outsider and the challenges we would face.”
After training she was transferred to Jose Fassardi, a rural town known for the production of organic sugar cane and a wood processing factory that was forced to close due to deforestation. Houts said she had no specific job requirements except to help the community create sustainable projects.
“I spent most of my first six months getting to know people,” she said. “‘Work’ meant visiting families in their homes, drinking terere (a traditional tea) and talking. Paraguayans generally work with people they know and trust so it was important for me to form relationships before I started any big projects.”
Although the town had a large population of children, she was surprised to learn there was little for them to do. To fill this void, she began giving lectures on democracy and self-esteem at the high schools, organizing a cleanup of a neighborhood soccer field and creating a girls group modeled after the Girl Scouts.
When she began to work with the principal of a technical high school, she was dismayed to learn that there was only a four-hour school day and few textbooks.
“Because of the lack of materials, teachers spend class time copying material on to the blackboard and students copy this into their notebooks,” she said. “They memorize these notes and regurgitate it back for exams. There is no room in the school day for creative thinking, group work or projects of any kind.”
When she hosted a geography camp over the winter break, she found that most children were unable to find Paraguay on a world map.
“Some children did not understand that they were looking at a world map,” she explains. “As every day passes I realize how unbelievably lucky I am to have been born and raised where I was, and received the years of quality education I did, a luxury I realized most of these children will never have. What wonderful public schools we have in Encinitas!”
It was in addressing this need that Houts developed the idea for a community library.
“The modern world is starting to infiltrate this little homestead and they understand the importance an education can bring to a successful career,” she said. “A community library, accessible to all the students, youth and community members of Fassardi, would provide access and resources to enhance their educational, professional and personal needs.”
Houts added that youth would finally have a place to gather and continue their education after school was recessed.
“They could learn basic computer skills and access information they never had before,” she said. “Children could come and explore a world of books they never knew before!”
The principal of the school shared Houts’ vision and together they formed a youth commission to organize fundraising activities and generate support from the local community. They also wrote petitions for book donations and grant proposals to the Peace Corps.
“We were accepted for a Small Projects Assistance Grant and will receive the money in the next few weeks,” Houts reported. “We will be able to begin buying shelves, computers, tables and chairs, and most importantly, books.”
Houts hopes that by sharing her story, readers of The Coast News will rally to support her efforts. To make a tax-deductible donation of $5 or $10 to Houts’ Community Library Project, click here.