Sophomore English classes organize book drive for islands in the Bahamas

by Grace Moody, ’14

On Jan. 1, 2003, two divers celebrated the new year by exploring a blue hole, a deep, vertical cave in the ocean off the coast of the Bahamas. What began as an enjoyable dive for two friends ended in a tragedy. Jenny Nichol, a well-loved kid’s swimming coach and Bexley resident and Mark Gibson, an experienced Bahamian diver from the island of Andros were never found after the dive. It is assumed that the two died in the innermost layer of the blue hole, in one of the caves that diagrams show stretches out to be about the size of a city block.

Rose Blanchard, a retired Bexley teacher who worked in the Bahamas after college, knew Nichol and Gibson and said that the International Field Studies program called in divers to help search for the two, but they were never found.

“The International Field Studies brought in the world’s best cave diver that we know of, at least, Caribbean cave diver, and he didn’t find a trace of anything left behind,” Blanchard said. “They’re somewhere down in that blue hole, I’m sure. And I’ve always thought that if one of them had trouble, neither one of them would have left the other one.”

It was these tragic deaths that spurred the athletes of Nichol’s Bexley swim team to brainstorm ideas for a memorial to her and Gibson. After contacting Blanchard, who has contacts in the Bahamas, and much planning, the Bexley students began The Family Island Library Project. In March of 2004, about a year after the deaths, the project of sending books to underprivileged schools in the islands of the Bahamas was underway.

This project that began 10 years ago joined UAHS this school year. The Family Island Library Project is a book drive that is being organized by sophomore English classes around the school. The students will spend the school year organizing a collection of new and used books around the community to send to students in the Bahamas.

English teacher Amanda Fountain is working with Blanchard to bring the book drive to UAHS. Fountain, who has a history of incorporating service learning projects into her classroom instruction, met Blanchard at the beginning of the year and got involved with the project through her.

“I’m always looking for service learning opportunities for students because I think it makes for a deeper and richer learning and when this opportunity crossed paths with me I thought it was wonderful,” Fountain said. “And not only that but it’s near Andros Island where some of our students go for the summer biology field trips, so there’s that connection too.”

The project, as Fountain explained, has grown since 2004, as over 120,000 books have been sent to the Bahamian students from other schools and groups who have participated.

“The schools down in the Bahamas don’t have a lot of funding and they don’t have libraries or excessive amounts of money for books,” Fountain said. “So it kind of grew out of a celebration of the lives of those who died tragically and give back in some way so that we can remember them.”

The main island of the Bahamas is Providence, where the capital, Nassau, is located. About 90 percent of the population lives on Providence, known as Grand Bahama, and the “parent island.” Since most of the population is in Providence, most of the government’s money stays in Providence, as Blanchard explained.

Therefore the books that UA students collect will be sent to what’s known as the “family islands,” the 27 or 28 islands surrounding the parent island, Providence. The money that the government provides to the family islands is slim, therefore many of the islands don’t have libraries or books in their classrooms.

Through Blanchard’s work in the Bahamas, she hopes to model an educational way to incorporate books into the students’ learning.

“The teachers would assign book reports, but to build lessons around the books was something new to them,” Blanchard said. “So we present examples and we have a book fair where we’ll put out 2,000 books and the teachers get to choose the books they would like to have in their own classrooms and it’s all free because it’s the books that are donated.”

Lucy Harper, a sophomore in Chris Goddard’s English class, is one of the students participating in this project. She said she is excited to see how UA’s effort makes a difference in the lives of the Bahamian children.

“They are underprivileged children and they really appreciate the books,” Harper said. “It helps them learn and have better opportunities by being more well-educated. And I just think that that makes a big difference in their lives.”

Harper said Blanchard showed the classes a map of the Bahamas and explained where the book were going and how they would arrive there. The books are driven from Columbus to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. There they are shipped on boats to various islands in the Bahamas.

According to sophomore Marleigh McGuire, the English classes involved will do much advertising for the drive throughout the school year. McGuire is in Fountain’s English class and is excited about this service learning project.

“I’m hoping that this project helps our community grow closer throughout the fun activities that we are going to do with this project,” McGuire said. “I hope it helps our classes to become more tight-knit.”

Fountain spent the first semester brainstorming ideas for fundraising and book collection with her students.

“They’re thinking really big which is great,” Fountain said. “They’ve done a lot of brainstorming and they have initial ideas.”

Some of the ideas that the students have to raise both books and money for books are a competition between grade levels or class periods, a dodgeball tournament, a pie competition, a door-to-door book walk and boxes for donations at different locations throughout the community.

Blanchard, who is excited to bring this project to UAHS, thinks service learning is an important lesson for students.

“I feel that it’s important for everybody to realize that they’re part of a larger world,” Blanchard said. “And to reach out beyond their own family and give back to their own community as well as to the bigger community.”

Image 1 Caption: Two preschoolers unpack books sent from the United States. In the past 10 years, over 120,000 books have been sent to the Bahamas.

Image 2 Caption: Rose Blanchard and sophomore Bobby Gardikes work together on the book drive. Students helped organize books to send to the Bahamas.

Image 3 Caption: A student at Morrisville Primary School in the Bahamas flips through a new book. Many schools were able to start school libraries because of this project.

Images courtesy Amanda Fountain