Susan: Empowering Mayan Communities - National Gold Award Girl Scout

Empowering Mayan Communities: Susan S. Tackles High Illiteracy Rate in Guatemalan Village

For her Gold Award, Susan S., from Girl Scouts of San Jacinto Council, created a Spanish-language children’s audiobook library in the small village of Santa Maria de Jesus in Guatemala. She did this to address the high illiteracy rate and poor primary school readiness in small Mayan villages scattered throughout the country by helping Mayan children and families learn to read.

While 26 Mayan languages and dialects are still spoken among the residents of these villages, when children enter elementary school, they struggle to speak, read and write in Spanish, Guatemala’s official language and that in which elementary school is taught. Because the children’s parents are often illiterate too, they are unable to help the kids with their school work, which all serves to perpetuate illiteracy, limited job skills, poverty, and teen marriage. For example, Santa Maria de Jesus, most boys stop attending school by sixth grade and girls are known to drop out even sooner, as early as the second grade.

Partnering with SANA, a local nonprofit health clinic, preschool, and library located in Santa Maria de Jesus, Susan recruited 15 Spanish speakers to record 105 Spanish children’s audiobooks, set up the library within their facility, and established regular programs to give children and their families access to these key resources, while also making plans to keep the library growing.

Her project’s goal to build literacy and school readiness has surpassed expectations. Over 400 children visit the library every month to listen to and read books, and most children who attend the SANA preschool are now testing at or above reading level when entering public schoo Mothers are also benefiting and have started coming to the library to listen and learn.



Q: Why did you choose this topic for your Gold Award Project?
A: I wanted to do my Gold Award for SANA because I had volunteered in their preschool on a summer vacation to Guatemala and saw the children’s great need. They literally have nothing – no toys, books, or prospects beyond subsidence farming.

I was appalled that girls drop out of school in second grade because they struggle with Spanish, a language I was trying to learn, too. So when a Houston dual language teacher gave me a box of Spanish children’s books, including five audiobooks, I got the idea for recording more books using volunteer readers.

Q: What’s the biggest obstacle you faced in completing your Gold Award project?
A: When I first built my audiobook library, I had many fears. I was nervous the kids wouldn’t like it and that they wouldn’t understand my Spanish well enough to use the technology. But most of all, I was afraid the audiobook library that I had worked so hard on wouldn’t help.

Global illiteracy is an epidemic. At times, it seemed unsolvable. And for one person it is. But my Gold Award project taught me that even though I couldn’t eradicate global illiteracy, I could try to eradicate it in one town. As Malala Yousafzai famously said, “One child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world.”

Q: What did your Gold Award teach you?
A: My Gold Award taught me that solving a small part of a seemingly unsolvable problem, like illiteracy, can still make a huge difference.

I discovered there are many answers to one question. If answer A didn't work, I went on to B, C, and so on. I learned not to be afraid to voice my opinions and to listen more. I improved my technical skills, figuring out how to record audiobooks on a laptop with Garage Band and iTunes, and burning each recording to a CD to go along with its book.

Q: How has your project been successful, and how have you worked to ensure it is sustainable?
A: More than 400 children visit the library every month. The library is a novelty because most have never seen a book and books are not provided in the schools. Despite their poverty and malnutrition, most SANA children are starting to score at or above the national average on their school exams.

We’re changing parent's lives too. Mothers have started coming to listen and learn. If sustainability happens, the whole village could change as the students grow and stay in school, making it a possibility for future generations to do the same.

To ensure the library lasts at least three years, I burned three copies of each recording in case discs break or scratch. With 105 books, different books can be played at story time once a week for nearly three years, and all can be listened to individually anytime.

To allow the audiobook library to grow, I created instructions on how to record and donate books to SANA, and shared it with scouts and friends through social media. Volunteers keep this project growing!

Community in Schools, a Houston group for at-risk children, bought 25 books and their students, Central American immigrants, are recording them for SANA. A junior troop wants to record books next year too.

Q: Where are you now and what are your plans for the future?
A: My Gold Award helped me discover what I want to study in college. Seeing the many barriers people face made me realize I want to alleviate issues like poverty, illiteracy and human exploitation that affect women, minorities and people in undeveloped countries. This fall, I will apply to college. I hope to study Spanish, political science, and international relations because I want make a difference in the United States and in the world.

Meanwhile, I am getting involved in my community now using my Gold Award skills. I recently obtained an internship with Ignite, a national nonprofit, non-partisan organization that engages young women in politics. I helped Ignite plan a Houston conference for 150 high school and college women. I contacted over 100 female elected officials and I got 25 to attend!

I would never have been brave or confident enough to undertake this internship without my Gold Award experience.

Q: What have you learned from being a Girl Scout?
I’ve learned that one girl can change their community and the world, and I want to pass that message on to every Girl Scout, because the world needs us to solve its problems.