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Books for Belize Begin Their Journey

Many students assisted in the Books for Belize initiative. See more.

St. Louis, Mo. - The semi truck backed up to Fontbonne University's loading dock Dec. 10 was ready and waiting for some weighty cargo - some 22,000 books headed to the tiny Central American country of Belize.

The Fontbonne men's basketball team provided the muscle needed to get more than 350 boxes of books loaded onto the tractor trailer. The tomes are destined for 13 villages in Punta Gorda, Belize, where the Jesuits plan to build libraries.

The Belize connection came about after Dr. Nancy Blattner, Fontbonne vice president and dean for academic affairs, traveled to the country as part of a project to educate Belizean teachers how to screen and assess preschool-age children for speech-language issues and other disabilities.

Dr. Blattner heard about Father Dick Perl, a St. Louis Jesuit, working in the poorest district in Belize, who also has a niece attending Fontbonne.

"My husband and I started donating to Father Perl's work," Blattner said. "He contacted me to ask how I knew about his work, and then visited me in August when he came to see his niece."

Father Perl shared his dream of establishing a few libraries in Belize. That's when Blattner and her best friend, Dr. Tamara Baldwin, and their husbands, Tim Blattner and Dr. Henry Sessoms, cooked up the idea of collecting books.

At a campus event in September that focused on the United Nation's goals of addressing poverty, a lack of education and other issues, a student asked Blattner what they could do. She explained the book project. A faculty member who organized the event, Dr. Sarah Huisman, liked the idea, too, and coined the phrase "Books for Belize." She then challenged faculty and staff at Fontbonne to collect and donate books. She set an aggressive goal of 25,000 books. Soon, in addition to on-campus donations, faculty and staff reached out to other organizations in the community.

"The response has been amazing, and it was also interesting that some people (students/faculty) were mildly resistant to giving up books from their childhood or their children's books," said Huisman, an assistant professor and director of Fontbonne's early childhood program. "But later, they told me that it was better to have children in Belize, who have limited access to books, receive these wonderful classics and enjoy them."

One of Huisman's classes - of only 11 students - collected 2,000 books. An unintended consequence of the book drive resulted in what educators call a "teachable moment."

"Students told me they learned about different means of accessing books in our community," Huisman explained. "They went to thrift stores, discount stores, or asked friends and neighbors for books. In my early childhood courses, we discussed the disparity of children that are in situations of low socioeconomic status and how they do not have access to these books. As advocates for children and as future teachers, they realized it is important that all children have equal access to good children's literature."

Meanwhile, Blattner's husband and friends, who live in Cape Girardeau, Mo., did their part as well. In fact, several thousand more books await the arrival of the semi truck, which is being provided free-of-charge by a local Cape Girardeau company, Genesis Transportation.

"In all, we think the project will exceed 30,000 books," Blattner said. "I can think of no better way for the Fontbonne community, and all others who were involved, to make a difference in the world. The education and the lives of children in Belize will be affected for years to come."