With books, Atlantic City Pinoy teacher makes inroads in Philippines

By ERIK ORTIZ
ATLANTIC CITY – They didn’t have to be in mint condition, widely popular or particularly timely, but Nina Shad wanted them: books, magazines, teaching materials. Whatever her fellow teachers at New Jersey Avenue School could do without, she would flash a gracious smile and take.

In 2004, Shad began collecting books for schools in the Philippines. With family still living there and return visits every so often, she knew how paltry the educational opportunities were for children in the Southeast Asian country’s poor rural provinces.

But with books, she could make inroads.

In September, Shad was transferred to Chelsea Heights School to teach English as a second language in the mornings. Again she asked for books. Again, her colleagues came through.

But talking with the school’s media specialist, Jennifer Jamison, Shad realized that her one-woman mission could most benefit from the children of Chelsea Heights, who would no doubt be eager to lend a hand.

A three-day book fair was coming up in May. And Shad knew of another school in the Philippines – Cili Elementary – that was in need of help.

The “bookworm” project was born. For every book the students purchased, they were encouraged to donate an additional 25 cents or more, which earned them a certificate to hang in the school’s hallway.

By the end of it, there were about 600 certificates, forming the body of a cartoon worm. The children had donated almost $200. As an added bonus, book distributor Scholastic agreed to match the amount of books purchased for the Philippines.

School officials were impressed by the children’s efforts.

“They’re willing to extend themselves to people they don’t even know,” Chelsea Heights Principal Kenneth Flood said. Community responsibility goes hand in hand with learning at the school, Flood said. Atlantic City schools in general have struggled with low test scores and high student failure rates, Chelsea Heights – with students in kindergarten through eighth grade – stands out. It earned a state “Distinguished School” honor in 2005 for its improvements, despite non-native English speakers making up half its student population and more than 80 percent considered economically disadvantaged.

Shad said she is proud of the children.

“Atlantic City is not filled with the richest kids, either,” she said. “They come from working families. But the children (were) so into helping them out when they found out that (the children in the Philippines) hardly had any books.”

The shelves at the Chelsea Heights School library are filled with classic novels and newer titles. Banks of Apple computers crowd long desks. The children can gather around a television to watch videos. Student Shahwaiz Shah, 11, a school library volunteer, likes to call the place a “heaven full of books.”

It was June when the books from Scholastic were delivered to Shad. There were dictionaries and children’s books, novels and stories about frogs and roller coasters. She packed them into boxes in her Atlantic City home, and then a cargo company came to ferry them thousands of miles away.

Overseas, a personal mission Halfway around the world from Atlantic City, and about 100 miles north of the Philippine capital of Manila, is the town of Binalonan. Its population is close to 50,000. Rice fields carpet the region and farmers sink into the mud behind their slow-moving water buffaloes. The modern world is here, and it isn’t. The land is untouched by McDonald’s.

Down a dirt path is Cili Elementary School, made up of unconnected classrooms housing 165 students. Its library is the newest in the town. A brick walkway leads to the library’s front door. It’s a single room with white walls. One corner has a U-shaped table and matching dark wood chairs. A few hundred books are spread out on bookcases with shelves that appear mostly sparse.

Lydia Dorion, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve, built this library. It took a little moxie and a lot of money.

She said she refused to pay the 300,000 pesos, or nearly $7,000, a contractor wanted, so she designed the library and found the workers and the materials herself, all of it out of pocket.
This town was her father’s town, and while Dorion remains a U.S. citizen and says she’s proud to have served her adopted country, this is home, too.

Dorion is 65 with raven hair and slight, gazing eyes. With few job opportunities in the Philippines, she immigrated to the United States in 1968 and eventually joined the Army, following in her father’s military footsteps. She would spend 16 years as a dietitian and also working for the Department of Veterans Affairs, going wherever she was needed.

In 1996, she decided to return to Binalonan and retire. Her background as a dietitian came in handy when she learned Cili Elementary’s lunch program was struggling and the children needed food. She helped to finance the program as a volunteer.

“We’re very lucky,” Jessica S. Bautista, Cili Elementary’s head teacher, said of Dorion.

The shelves are ready

The school year in the Philippines runs from June to March. Bautista said families in the public schools are expected to pay a yearly fee for things such as maintenance, but at Cili Elementary, with 70 percent of children classified as “indigent,” families can’t afford the average $6 cost.

Parents eke out a living working the fields, selling produce or cleaning houses. Often times, mothers and fathers must leave for better-paying jobs in the United States or the Middle East, sending money home through remittances.

For all Dorion’s time spent working in America, what she remembers fondly are the libraries – like none she had ever seen in Binalonan.

Back in the Philippines, she wanted Cili Elementary to have its own. And after months of planning and building, the new library was finally dedicated in December. Dorion named it in honor of her late father, Ricardo Dorion, a colonel in the Philippine army.

But there was still something missing: the books.

Yes, Dorion could easily buy books. But, she reasoned, books are not a rare commodity, and certainly people would be willing to donate them.

In her travels back to the States, she called on her network of family and friends. One promise of donations came from a family friend, Nina Shad, whom she had visited in Atlantic City.

And so, in June Dorion waited for boxes from Shad and other contacts who pledged books for her fledgling library. In anticipation, Dorion has come up with library cards for the students.

There are also library cards available to the adults of Binalonan. Dorion wants this library to become a place for everybody, and so she has stocked up on periodicals and books geared toward older readers.

“I want people to learn. If they know how to read, well, at least they have something,” Dorion said of the nation with a 96.3 percent literacy rate.

Dorion’s next project is to extend the library and create a whole other room, hopefully for a computer, which would be the school’s first for the children. (The school offers a keyboarding class, but since there are no computers, the students can learn only through textbooks.)

Dorion’s not sure how much this new room would cost, or from where the computer would come.

Back in Atlantic City, Shad said she may visit Dorion in Binalonan next summer and see the library for herself. Until then, she’s still on the hunt for unwanted books.

There’s another school, she said, that needs her help.

Find more like this: Education, News

Comments

  1. dyahe says:

    Saludo po ako sa kawanggawa ninyo..God will surely bless your project. My prayers for its success.

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