Saturday, March 25, 2017

Thank you, Darien!

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, you are always looking out for ways to help your community. So when I heard about a small charity that specializes in sending boxes of books to Peace Corps Volunteers, I immediately submitted my request. That charity is located in the town of Darien, Connecticut.

Darien Book Aid was founded in May of 1949 when Mrs. Gordon Lamont of Darien conceived the idea of sending good reading material to share the American way of life with war-torn Europe. She gathered some of her friends together, which then led to getting the help of Ambassador John Davis Lodge (as well as other government officials). Finally, generous contributions from Darien residents helped to start this charity that continues nearly 70 years later.

Book collection containers were placed in stores, schools, and churches in Darien. The Red Cross, school children, and the Kiwanis Club helped with the collections. For many years, they enjoyed financial support from the government -- first from the State Department and then from the Peace Corps. Because of budget cuts over the years, today they have no government or other organization affiliation. Darien Book Aid depends solely on private contributions to gather reading materials and pay all their shipping costs.

When I arrived in St. Lucia for my initial training in June of 2015, I met a woman from Connecticut named Brie. We have kept in touch via Facebook, and I took notice when she posted that she had went to Darien in January to help this charity. As it turns out, she was working the day my box was packed, although she did not pack my box. However, she did agree to write up her experience so that I could share with you how the process works on the American end. Here is her half of the story:

“A fellow Connecticut Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV—those Peace Corps Volunteers who have completed their service and are now back in the USA), Jillian, organized the activity of our group to pack boxes of books for Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) across the world. I drove nearly two hours from my home to participate in what I felt was going to be a worthwhile activity. I had never done anything like it so I was looking forward to meeting more RPCVs as well as giving back. I was conflicted about the particular day since it was on the same day as the Women's March on Washington (and sister cities). I had wanted to do both events but the book aid project was my way of putting good into the world. I was there in spirit with family and friends who protested.

The experience of packing books, which seems like a small thing to do, was immensely rewarding and exciting. I was shown around the library of donated books, the bin of requests from PCVs, the paperwork we put in each box that gives it a personal touch, how to pack a box, and so on. We got to choose which request we filled so I chose Albania and Philippines.

I absolutely loved reading about the PCV, their needs, and the audience for which I was to select books. I adore books and I'm an avid reader which made it more special. I included books from Fancy Nancy to Huckleberry Finn to books about the US to ESL (English as a Second Language) type books/workbooks. I had different demographics: age and learning level. I filled orders that desired award winning to basic reading to non-fiction.

What struck me was the needs of the communities; one of them only had material as recent as 1991. I felt a huge responsibility to send the best and "right" books as they may be the only ones they have for a very long time. I took a lot of time choosing my books pouring over them carefully. Thankfully, I was reassured that it was ok. It was about quality not quantity.

As I mentioned, each of us wrote a note to go along with the box of books which I felt was such a loving touch. I knew the excitement each PCV would feel when they received their box; then be able to share with the communities they serve. Then to think about the joy each student, child and adult, would get was almost overwhelming. The library was full of high energy, love, and camaraderie. I was on cloud nine after the event! Several of us went to lunch afterward and bonded further as we discussed our service in Peace Corps. I made new friends that day!

The icing on the cake was learning my friend and fellow Eastern Caribbean volunteer, David Kurtz, was one of the recipients of the books. Hats off to Darien Book Aid who collects books, fundraises, and ships at roughly $100.00 USD per box to PCVs.”

Thus, the box bound for my village was packed at Darien on Saturday, January 21. On Friday, March 17, I stopped at our village post office on my way home and discovered that the box had finally arrived nearly two months later (and with no damages). I hurriedly retraced my path to the school, carrying the box on top of my head as the local residents typically do. [This is a new skill I'm working on developing, as I sometimes carry my laundry basket and other bulky items on my head (although I am not a true Dominican, because I am not talented enough to carry such items on my head without using my hands).]

Since school had dismissed over an hour earlier, there were just three students still around, but they eagerly joined me to see what was inside the box. They were as excited as I was when we started pulling out the new (gently used) books and magazines. The picture above shows them engrossed in the newly arrived books.
On Monday morning, I processed the 24 books and 8 magazines into our small library. In the past, I have had to write an inscription in the front of each donated book noting the date and the donor. However, I was able to get a stamp made in the USA for the principal to use, so now I use her stamp on any new books. As the picture above shows, the folks at Darien also have a stamp of their own, so I simply positioned mine above their existing stamp.

After stamping the inside page of each book, I then must affix a colored dot to the spine to denote whether the book is for beginner, intermediate, or advanced readers. Non-fiction books get a white stripe added to their dot for easier sorting and placement. Finally, a layer of transparent tape goes over the dot to keep it in place. All of this process (and more) is described in my previous story about the good folks at the Hands Across the Sea charity.

Obviously, this wasn't nearly as many new books as what Hands Across the Sea has sent me each fall. However, we are always grateful for whatever donations we can get for our little school. Since there were not all that many books, it didn't make sense to do a big book fair as we had organized back in November (book fairs are virtually unheard of here). However, I did use one of our new picnic tables to display all the new books after they had been processed (as shown above). When the lunch bell rang, the children came out to see these new books for the first time. The picture below shows a couple of students reading the books after the initial crowd died down.
In closing this story, I thought I would share with you a picture (shown below) of the correspondence included in the box from the woman who packed it that day. To the surprise of no one who knows me, you can see that part of my request was for my personal favorite—non-fiction books. I am grateful for some of these small, heretofore unknown to me, charities that have supported my efforts in Dominica, such as Darien Book Aid, Hands Across the Sea, and Courts For Kids.

P.S. I just had to share with all my readers that Friday night, March 24, was very special to me. I had purchased a barbecued chicken (leg and thigh) for dinner and had taken it down to the shoreline to eat while watching the waves. Another local joined me there, and we had a pleasant conversation. While we were talking, we noticed huge splashes, forceful spouts, and even large black bodies as a pod of whales breached the surface off our coast. I'm not share if they were feeding, playing, or something else, but this was the first time that I had ever seen whales! Unfortunately, it was at dusk so the light was not good for taking pictures (plus the distance was too great for the camera on my phone to get clear pictures). I'm glad I had a local witness to verify the amazing sight that I was seeing! I will long treasure that experience!

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