“Too Many Kids Are Still Hampered By A Lack Of Resources.”- A Conversation With Co-founders of Reading Owls International

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A report by Xavier Murphy for Jamaicans.com.

Easton and Elaine Dickson are founders of Reading Owls International (Reading Owls or ROI) is a publicly supported, 501 (c)(3) nonprofit organization that partners with schools and community organizations in Jamaica to provide access to books and other learning resources for disadvantaged, school-aged children.

Easton is currently Treasurer for Bain and Company, a leading management consulting company, and is based in their Boston Office. He is also Co-founder and Treasurer of Reading Owls and is passionate about education and giving back. Says Easton, “Despite leaving Jamaica more than 25 years ago, I will always be Jamaican, and I am emotionally committed to the well-being of the country. My motivation to help is driven by a confluence of factors – my love for Jamaica, an awareness of the pressing needs, and a belief in education as a key vehicle of success, with reading as its cohort.”

Elaine is Co-founder of Reading Owls and currently serves as its day-to-day Director. Her focus is on ensuring the organization stays mission-focused and is effecting structural change in education. Her passion is largely driven by her own experience of lack as a child, as well as the belief that every child has a right to literacy, and that we must tackle illiteracy and inequity. In her words, “Going back to my hometown more than 40 years later and seeing there was still no library, I knew I had to do something to disrupt the cycle. I could not let another generation of young boys and girls grow up without reading a book.”

Here is our conversation with Easton and Elaine Dickson.

Good Afternoon Elaine and Easton and thanks for taking the time to have a conversation with us. Where in Jamaica are you from?
Elaine: I consider myself a daughter of the soil of St. Mary; I was actually born in Kingston, but my family moved to St. Mary when I was still a very young child. All my formative friendships, schooling, culminating at Marymount High, ways of viewing the world, took place in St. Mary

Easton: I was born and grew up in Hanover, in a small village called Clifton and that’s where I spent most of my childhood, including through high school at Rusea’s. Later, I attended the University of the West Indies (Mona) before migrating.

Tell us about Reading Owls International?
Reading Owls is a best in class grassroots organization that creates and delivers a culturally relevant educational experience for school-aged Jamaican kids. We partner with local government entities such as the Jamaica Library Service (JLS schools network), the Early Childhood Commission (ECC) and collaborate with the Peace Corps who are also on-the-ground providing literacy help. Through public donations we are able to provide books and other educational resources, renovate and create safe, child-friendly, and welcoming learning and fun environments for kids.

At Reading Owls, we imagine a world in which every child has the educational resources to help him or her succeed. Every child can learn, and should be afforded the opportunity to realize their full potential. Our goal is to make sure every child in Jamaica has access to education, books and related resources, so we focus on schools in dire need of a quality library facility.  Importantly, all our libraries are lending libraries, accessible to the kids and their families so they can also read at home.

Children should never feel as if they are getting discarded books, and we will not facilitate Jamaica receiving unhelpful resources. We follow a meticulous screening process to ensure that books are of high quality and culturally relevant and that a substantial amount reflects the kids who read them.  Currently, we rely almost exclusively on our carefully curated Amazon wish listfor donated books, which ensures that we get new books that provide the best worldview of the kids and the world around them (windows and mirrors). We also have a number of select distributors that we purchase books from.

How did it get started? How did you come up with the idea?
Easton/Elaine: ROI was really born out of this latent, yet restless desire to give back to Jamaica in a sustained way. It was founded by husband and wife team, Easton and Elaine Dickson. Frustrated by how little had changed in their childhood communities in Jamaica, they started Reading Owls to partner with grassroots organizations that serve marginalized communities, by providing learning resources and libraries.

We care deeply about Jamaica and recognize that too many kids are still hampered by a lack of resources. When you recognize that kids are growing up with a lack of access to books, a basic human right, it spurs you to act.  So it is an attempt to address the appalling shortcomings, especially in rural area library services that we experienced as kids, and is still prevalent today. At a personal level, reading is a source of immense pleasure for us and is a proven avenue to academic and professional success.  Our success in America afforded us the opportunity to combine our love of reading with our love for Jamaica.

ROI was started in December 2013 with the full support of a small, yet dynamic and enthusiastic group of trustees and volunteers, many of whom still remain the backbone of the organization, and to whom we owe a great deal of gratitude for their service and generosity. Interestingly, many of our supporters at the corporate/business, foundation and personal level have no direct connection to Jamaica, but they love kids and believe in equity and a child’s right to an education. We cannot overstate our thankfulness to them.

How are the schools selected?
Schools are selected based on rigorous criteria and according to an established process, and with expert input from several of our on-the-ground partners. Critical criteria elements include demonstrated need, a school in an underserved community, without a library or a library with significant deficiencies.  Another criterion is the presence of administrators and teachers who are committed to the consistent utilization and upkeep of the library. Each school must provide a robust sustainability plan.

The selection process starts with a list of schools, based on any/all of the following: information and recommendation from the Jamaica Library Service (JLS), Early Childhood Commission (ECC) and the Peace Corps.  Additionally, ROI will screen based on its own research, largely guided by the schools’ National Education Inspectorate (NEI) reports and by word of mouth. The NEI is the national body tasked with quality assurance and inspections for schools. Finally, ROI also considers applications submitted by organizations using the library application at our website.  Shortlisted schools are then assessed via onsite visits and administrator/teacher and librarian (where applicable) interviews.  Candidates are then presented to the ROI board, and a final selection is made based on team discussion and decision-making.

Can you tell us about some successes?
In just 6 years and with largely public funding and in-kind donations, Reading Owls has created or supplemented 24 libraries, serving over 7,000 school-aged children. We are incredibly proud of this team effort. Testimonials on some of our most recent projects can be viewed here.

How has the project been funded so far?
We are also incredibly grateful for the tremendous support we get in the form of free or donated warehousing, supplies and materials for shipping, logistics, and customs/taxes help in Jamaica, plus distribution across the island. The thousands of dollars saved allow us to provide even more resources to the kids who need them most.

What are your current funding goals?
Our 2020 goal is to raise USD $150,000 to meet our programmatic objectives. Of course we would love to exceed it. This level – buttressed by the many donated services from our collaborators and partners, plus donated books, allows us to reach more kids at a faster pace, and get them hooked on reading.

If someone wants to help with the project what do you suggest they do?
There are several avenues to support Reading Owls.  Firstly, we always ask that people get to know us and our work and accomplishments by visiting our website, liking us on Facebook, and following us on Instagram and Twitter. Secondly, for those that want to support us with books, our Amazon wishlist is continuously updated with the needs of our schools. Additionally, we always need volunteers for warehouse projects as well as board and committee service, and welcome any interested parties in the MA/RI area (as well as on-the-ground volunteer help in Jamaica). They can most easily reach us by email. Finally, and very elatedly, friends of Jamaica and Jamaicans in the Diaspora, who live in the Northeast/New England area, can join us for our signature celebration event, Jammin’ for Books! on March 7, where the Hon. Ambassador Audrey Marks, Jamaica’s ambassador to the US, will be our patron. Tickets are on sale now here or at https://www.readingowlsinternational.org/jamminforbooks.  We are also looking for additional sponsors and auction items, and we would welcome efforts by your audience to connect us with potential sponsors and donors.

Are there plans to expand the project across the island?
Our work is nationwide in scope, with libraries currently spanning Hanover, Portland, Manchester St. Mary and St. Ann, St. Elizabeth and Kingston – view map of our current libraries here.  From a strategic perspective, we try to saturate an area before moving to another area. Our efforts are currently centered in St. Ann and St. Mary and we have many prospective schools, primarily in Clarendon.

Complete this sentence. Growing up my hero was…
Elaine: Definitely Nelson Mandela. What he gave for the struggle, in his fight for equality for all South Africans was just astounding to me as a child, and still is. As an adult I gained such respect for him, particularly his outsized leadership, forgiveness and reconciliation efforts.

Easton: Pele, for his joyful excellence in a sport I loved, especially him being a Black figure

The book, movie or song that changed your life?
Easton: The works of C. Everard Palmer, because it reflected my rural settings and featured young boys I could relate to, both their aspirations and struggles.

Elaine: Probably a book, but honestly, I could choose any of the three. Things Fall Apart would get the nod. Just powerful, and life-changing and helped shaped some of my own views around the role of culture, leadership, morality and influences.

I feel happiest…..
Elaine: I feel happiest for the day when I…get to drink great coffee, hang out with my family, read a good book and do something good for the world, especially in education/ social justice.

Easton: I know I have done something of value for others, have time for leisure, running and writing.

Thanks for the interview. Do you have any final thoughts for the readers of Jamaicans.com?
Elaine: Thank you for investing some of your time in reading about Reading Owls story and mission – please get engaged with us at some level.  We are committed to the growth and development of Jamaica through education and welcome their involvement and partnership.

Easton: Many thanks to you Xavier and your team for affording us this awesome platform to share our story. One love!

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