Her name is Estefani and she’s about five years old. Well, that’s my guess anyway because, you see, I can’t ask her. Well, I could ask her, but she wouldn’t hear me. And even if she heard me, she couldn’t tell me. Estafani is both deaf and mute; but boy is she smart. I first met her when I noticed her sitting alone at the Hekab Be Biblioteca – the library in Akumal, Mexico. She was “reading” a book. I sat down and began reading with her. When she wouldn’t talk to me, I thought she was shy. Eventually, one of the other kids came up to me and, in Spanish (which turned into charades as my Spanish is incredibly sub-par), told me about Estefani’s challenges. Oh, I thought, so neither she nor I speak the language of the other kids, we have something in common. I pulled Dr. Seuss’, The Cat in the Hat off the shelf and together we read it. We created our own version of sign language using our hands for the letter “C’ followed by a movement to put an invisible hat on our heads. This became our symbol for The Cat in the Hat.
I’ve written previously on the lesser-known town of Akumal, Mexico and the surrounding area. Today I’d like to let you in on another secret of Akumal, and that would be the volunteer opportunities while traveling or, what has become known as “Voluntourism.”
While in Akumal, Mexico I was lucky enough to connect with the Hekab Be Biblioteca which, as the only local library, provides a selection of adult and children’s books in both English and Spanish. But there’s so much more to this library. They provide a varied afterschool program offering art classes, English instruction, a playground, sports, and even swimming classes. There’s also supervised free-time for kids to just run, play and draw.
The Hekab Be Biblioteca was opened in 1994 by Brenda Dettering, an American woman married to a Mexican man and living in Akumal. Her idea was to open a library which, as part of the curriculum, offered locals an opportunity to learn English. This wasn’t an American coming in with the idea that everyone should speak English because she did. She was doing it because, due to Akumal’s proximity to the resort cities of Cancun, Mexico and now, Playa del Carmen (twenty-years ago Playa was not the booming tourist destination it is now), a person who knows English as well as Spanish can double their earning potential. Brenda planned to begin teaching English to women, as this would provide the knowledge and skill for them to be independent and have more options for their future, and then expand the offering to anyone in the community who wished to participate. What she found was that a great deal of the population of Akumal could neither read nor write in Spanish, let alone in English. It was then that she adjusted her focus.
Currently, the Hekab Be Biblioteca serves a total of about eighty kids in addition to any adults in the community who wish to come and check out books, which are offered in both English and Spanish. The concentration of the library tends to be on the children for many reasons; it’s important to provide early intervention for literacy as children pick up languages much easier. Also, rural public schools in Mexico are overcrowded and severely in need of more resources and qualified staff members. In addition, many adults are working during the day and the library provides an after-school program as well as a playground to allow for a safe environment for the kids to just be kids. Finally, as most parents know, school has costs associated with it; parents must pay for supplies, uniforms and books. Some parents can’t afford these fees and the library can be the next best thing. The ultimate goal of the Hekab Be Biblioteca is “to offer classes in English, music, art, environmental education, and yoga, as well as homework help. To keep the children learning and excited about learning so they will do all they can to stay in school and have the opportunity for whatever future they desire to pursue.”
Anne Gabbert works at the Hekab Be Biblioteca. Officially she is the Director; unofficially she’s the teacher, librarian, fundraiser, psychologist, social worker, mom, bus driver, volunteer coordinator and mentor. After years visiting Akumal, in 2010, Anne arrived to stay and got a job teaching English at the local school. The following year, two parents told her about the library, and, in 2013, Anne began her job there. She also works a second job at a local reservations company in order to make ends meet. Anne arrives each afternoon and, at 2:30, she heads off in her personal SUV to drive around town and collect upwards of thirty-five children from their houses to deliver them to the library (it takes three to five trips as there are sometimes many more kids). At 5:15 she begins the process all over again to deliver the children back home, dropping each one directly at their house. And while some of the kids live in decent apartments, others live in wooden and tin structures which can only be described as shacks. The after-school program begins at 2:00 as some of the kids’ parents are able to bring their children there on their own. Anne would be the first to tell you that, while her salary is minimal, the rewards she gets from working at the library make her a rich woman. She is assisted at the library by Angel, Lety and Tere, three locals who help supervise the kids, but speak only Spanish.
The library has traditionally been open all day however, due to a lack of staff that can be there and speak English, it’s currently open only in the afternoon (Anne is at her second job in the morning).
The Hekab Be Biblioteca is solely supported by donations. “What do these donations go to?” you ask. Well, cash donations go to day-to-day expenses including: bottled water for the children, electric and water bills, cleaning supplies, copies, food supplies for cooking classes, employee salaries, etc.
As far as non-monetary donations go, the need is quite extensive. They accept a variety of items including books (Spanish and English), as well as art, school and sports supplies. They also accept items to sell at their bazaar/yard sale which they hold three times per year, and are always happy to receive donations of gently used clothes, shoes, toys, etc. The kids’ clothes and shoes sell fast as they are quite expensive in Akumal and not always very well made.
Anne also tells me, “We love to have visitors come and share their experiences, and also any type of handyman kind of work is appreciated. We had a plumber come and put in a new sink, we would love to have folks come and repaint, and just spending time with the children like you did is awesome.” Volunteers also help teach the children English (as I did a bit of one-on-one) or, if there are enough expats there for a six-week class, Anne organizes adult classes.
I’ve included links to the Hekab Be Biblioteca website and Facebook below. Through these links, you can find out more about this incredible place and how you can help. I can tell you from personal experience, this place will change you. I had planned to spend a few hours here, I ended up spending part of each day for five days.