There are many who hold Johnny Jara in esteem for his prowess in writing and publishing, others for his visionary talent in architectural design, and many others who enjoy his knowledgeable perspective on the arts in Ecuador. Those who know him best describe him as the quintessential Renaissance man whose gifts are made manifest in the fields of art, music, and writing. My interest is different. I am interested in his most recent project, developing a library in Uzhupud, a tiny village overlooking the farmland of Paute.
I met with Jara to see how his library project is progressing and began by asking for a little background information while having to contend with the competing swirl of kids crowding the courtyard, and… reading. Yes, reading. The kids were reading real, true-to-life ink on paper, books – I was elated.
Pumapungo Museum was hosting a “read a book party” in collaboration with the library that drew most of the village kids, eager to join in the festivities.
Tragically, the museum funding is in jeopardy and read-a-book parties throughout the region may soon become a thing of the past.
Jara is working diligently to mitigate the damage.
“I live in Uzhupud and know how important it is for kids to have access to the internet, to have a fun place to go for after-school classes, to have someone help them with their homework, and to know that a well-lit place to read awaits them. I know too that many students do not have a computer or wifi at home — two essential tools that kids need to keep pace in the changing environment of higher education.”
He is also aware that chores, siblings underfoot, and the daily minutiae of daily life challenges event the most inspired students.
He decided to lend a hand.
Early this year he began by securing a comfortable place to build a library. He was offered a cozy classroom adjacent to the village church and began collecting donated “surplus” books from non-government agencies (NGO) and local volunteers as well as other educational material to support the children of Uzhupud during summer vacation. In June he opened the doors.
“We have around 500 books now, mostly old high school textbooks and Encyclopedias. Our most pressing need is to get a couple of old computers for the kids. They doesn’t need be sophisticated at all; only to be able to access the internet for student research.”
In July, Jara began teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). He currently has a dozen students in a primary class and four intermediate students in advanced study. They range from 10 to 31 years of age.
Rocío is a 16 years old girl, a little shy and very bright; she is planning to go to Veterinarian School because she is a animal lover. Her dream includes learning to speak English fluently because she thinks the expat community¨s pets need attention, too. She is interested in many cultures and would like to understand North Americans better.
Michael is a 15 years old boy who was born in NYC where his father used to work. He came to Uzhupud when he was 4 years old. Michael is very interested to go back to the United States to study and work in a field that he can use to help support his parents. He intends to return to the U.S. when he turns 18 to complete his education by going to college.
Maria (not her real name) is a single mother of two children. She is 31 years old. Her husband left her years ago and never returned, forcing Maria to move forward while afraid and all alone. She now has a good job in Paute but knows that speaking English will enhance her opportunities for advancement and greater income to support her family. She also wants to be a good role model for her girls, showing them that hard work will allow them to prevail even while buffeted by the harsh winds of desertion and indifference.
When I visited the library and sat in on an English class I was very impressed by the disciplined approach Jara designed and the enthusiasm of the students. Their thirst for knowledge gave me a fresh sense of optimism and a lingering concern for their future success. I loved how inspired they are by Jara’s guidance and worry that even this may not be enough without expat support. The local school system applauds Jara’s effort but has few resources to provide other than encouragement. Books, paper, pens, and equally important, a belief that there are others who believe in, and will help them, is required.
It is an excellent time for us to step up and give these kids a hand.
When I asked Johnny how folks can best help he said, “The tutoring and mentoring of these youngsters is imperative. I am doing all I can, but I am all alone simply cannot do enough. This is not the making of a moment or the responsibility of a single person. I’m anxious to train a few volunteers so the library hours of operation can be extended and that additional classes and homework assistance can be provided. The cost of having the library fully staffed and operational will cost $200 dollars a month. This is my goal.”
The library is currently open from 3 to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.
The public response has been overwhelming, the parents and the kids love this space. Jara has been sought out by parents in Chicán who want a library for their village, as well. Authorities in Tarqui, Cumbe, and Sayausí have asked for his assistance as soon as he has time.
Johnny Jara is doing his utmost to improve the lives of the children in Uzhupud.
“My experience teaching English at the library has been wonderful. English is very important for students wishing to pursue an education, for the development of tourism, and for better integration and interaction with an increasingly complex and multicultural community. Simply put, the children of Ecuador deserve access to the outside world — and a prosperous future.”