In The Beginning
ABREN has been a grassroots, community driven organization from the beginning. The idea of starting a children’s library in Pueblo Nuevo, Nicaragua grew out of Kristina Underdal’s Peace Corps’ work with neighborhood youth, who were excited by her small collection of children’s books. Word spread quickly and soon Kristina’s one-room house was bursting each night with children immersed in the splendor of reading. Returning home, they shared these stories with their families and friends. As the children’s enthusiasm grew, Kristina and the community began to dream of a real library for children. In 2000, Kristina shared this dream with family and friends in the United States, asking for help. They rallied together to raise the necessary funds for construction materials, excited to help children in Nicaragua discover the joy of reading and gain access to better educational opportunities.
Construction began in January of 2001. The entire process was fueled by the volunteer work of local families – children and adults alike. The construction site was a joyful place. The construction manager patiently taught children to mold rebar and mothers to mix cement. The librarians taught themselves to paint and together with the community they filled the center with color.
The library was instantly popular with neighborhood children of all ages. They came to read, do their homework and participate in story hour. As the librarians became increasingly confident in their work, they began to develop other programs including math tutoring, homework study circles, youth groups, art classes, a writing club and a preschool program.
Creating a Non-Profit Organization
When Kristina returned to California after her Peace Corps service, she remained deeply involved in the library project. Over the next few years as attendance at the library grew rapidly and programs expanded, Kristina realized that the library now needed much more support than she could provide alone. It was time to turn ABREN into an official non-profit and build a board of dedicated volunteers who could bring their unique talents to the project. Not only have board members greatly supported the administration of ABREN, many members have also traveled to Pueblo Nuevo themselves to collaborate on educational programs with the librarians.
The Preschool Program
By 2004, a pilot preschool program had grown immensely and attracted popular support from the community. Families urged ABREN to pursue official recognition from the Ministry of Education so that the program could expand into a fully qualified preschool. Creating this program required a great deal of effort, collaboration and creativity on the part of the community, the librarians and the ABREN board. Our first class of kindergarteners to move on to 1st grade graduated in November 2005. What a proud moment that was for everybody involved, including the parent group that had spent a lot of time that year in the superintendent’s office lobbying for his official recognition of our program.
A Trusted Institution
Over the years ABREN’s programs have grown to meet community needs. More than a neighborhood program, ABREN is now a trusted institution whose influence reaches far beyond the town of Pueblo Nuevo. From the original library attendance of 30-40 children daily, ABREN’s programs now reach between 80 to 120 youth (preschool through college age) daily, many of which come from remote communities to take advantage of the library’s resources. Not only do these programs serve students directly, they are also now seen as models for instruction and support in surrounding schools. The Ministry of Education has moved from its initial posture of skepticism to one of appreciation and now brings new teachers to observe ABREN’s programs.
In 2007 ABREN took new steps towards fulfilling our mission to connect communities to create a more just society, not only within our own countries, but across borders as well. While ABREN had been facilitating pen pal relationships between young students in California and Pueblo Nuevo for many years, a summer trip was the first opportunity for these youth to meet each other in person. In June a delegation of several families from Palo Alto, CA were warmly welcomed by the community of Pueblo Nuevo. During our time together we collaborated on many projects, including offering a “camp experience” for local youth during their 2-week vacation. The “camp” featured arts and crafts activities, sports workshops and English classes. This trip was a powerful learning experience, particularly for the Californian families. They truly got an inside look at the realities of life in rural Nicaragua.
While visiting the library in 2007, several ABREN board members observed that attending to the educational needs of the very young while offering homework assistance to older students was extremely difficult to do in one small space. The library needed to expand. The Underdal family decided to purchase an adjacent property in memory of Kristina’s grandmother, Margaret Langsdorf, to create a new library for the youngest library users. Dramatic renovations were needed to create the center we envisioned. Just as during the construction of the original library, all ages and abilities were represented among the community volunteers. A difference, though, was the deeper sense of confidence that all our hard work was going to pay off. After six years watching the original library persist, flourish and grow, the community trusted that Casa Margarita would also become an enduring institution in their neighborhood.
When the construction project was completed, Casa Margarita had doubled the size of the existing library project. It now provides programs, materials and space specifically dedicated to meeting the needs of young children. It also houses the preschool program.
Teacher Resource Center
Our librarian, Irma Gópez López, recently pursued a rigorous course of study over five years to attain the equivalent of a master's degree in teaching. Two years ago, we found a wonderful classmate of Irma's to replace Irma as the new preschool teacher named Ada Liseth. Since then, Irma has devoted herself to developing our new Teacher Resource Center. In this program teachers who work at rural schools can check-out class sets of materials and receive many avenues of support for learning how to use these materials with their classes.
ABREN Book Press
ABREN Book Press came into being when we realized that the books we wanted to provide to our partner schools simple did not exist. Since quality children's books that reflect the realities of rural Latin America are few and hard to find, we decided that we would have write, illustrate and publish our own. Accomplishing our goal has been more daunting then we imagined, but the results have been exhilerating. See our BOOK STORE to learn more about this project and see the wide range of books we have published so far!