Throughout the morning kids kept trickling in, arriving by bike or walking with a little sibling strapped to their back. By noon about thirty had found us. Generally the kids were fairly quiet and reserved, though more than a few were outwardly enthusiastic: the two little boys in my group of ten huddled together and whispered quietly to each other, looking around at everyone else and only vaguely trying to complete the word-find at hand; the girl at my side tapped my shoulder and proudly announced every word she found, and raced to finish first.
After word games and foam cutouts were mostly completed Blanca and I retrieved the books from the trunk, spread them out on a blanket, and invited the kids to each pick one to read. At first they approached the blanket shyly in twos and threes; after a few minutes nearly all of the kids ages eight and over clutched a book or were crouched over the pile, shuffling around for a suitable story to read. Rachel (a volunteer from the US), Ivo (Mano a Mano Apoyo Aereo pilot) and I sat with them, listened to them, and helped them read aloud. I read with Ronald, a 12-year-old boy wearing a red sweater and homemade slingshot slung over his shoulder. He read hesitantly, following the words with his index finger, carefully sounding out each sound and neglecting the spaces in between the words. Although I'm sure he knew most of the words he was reading, I doubt he understood them as he occupied himself with differentiating the sounds of b versus d and putting syllables together. His earnest attempts at what was obviously a difficult task were immediately interrupted if anyone, particularly a girl, looked over or walked by us: his eyes would nervously glance up at her and his voice would get suddenly soft.
I joined a seventh-grade girl named Flácida who was devouring a story about two kids and a homemade jam competition, and she willingly read to me for the remaining fifteen pages of her book. Her voice was low and consistent and she read with little expression, though she rarely struggled with the words and sounded out the tough ones systematically. I asked her from time to time what was going on in the book, and she would briefly – and accurately – explain what had just happened, in a quiet voice with her eyes cast downward, though her quiet enthusiasm was obvious. She took the act of reading very seriously, and was not distracted for a moment by the kids wandering around, holding books and talking. She had walked an hour up from her town with her little brother to do this.
Blanca maintained a group of toddlers and young grade-schoolers by reading aloud and talking about reading with them. They sat in a group at her feet, wearing knit hats and shawls for the wind, squinting up at her and shouting out answers to her questions. Though a few unnamed members of our group suffered while wearing scarves, hats, and multiple sweatshirts, none of the kids mentioned the cold. After over an hour of reading time, we handed out food and little stapled booklets of stories to everyone and began packing up our materials. As some hopped on their bikes and headed down the hill towards home, a few students followed us around as we packed up, munching on bread and eagerly asking when we would be back. Blanca's idea is that Mano a Mano will make this sort of reading and activity day a weekly routine, which can eventually be passed on to the teachers and students to self-sustain, and which will spark the students' interest in books and reading. When the new six-room school is finished, Mano a Mano plans to donate boxes of books to make a small library of books for the students to take out and read at their leisure.
Libby Arnosti, Mano a Mano Volunteer