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Rebuilding School Libraries in Puerto Rico

Scholastic's Darlene Vazquez recounts the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Maria and shares how the Laura Bush Foundation’s 2017 Disaster Relief grants have benefited school libraries and students.

Article by Sarah Gibbons October 5, 2018 //   5 minute read

The Laura Bush Foundation’s 2017 Disaster Relief Initiative has awarded over $2 million to school libraries devastated by the storms and fires that ravaged schools around the country last fall, including 15 schools located in Puerto Rico. The schools that received grants benefited with discounts on new books and materials generously offered by Scholastic Inc., Follett School Solutions, Mackin Educational Resources and Bound to Stay Bound.

Darlene Vazquez works for Scholastic, Inc. in Puerto Rico and has been in contact with the grant recipients in her area. Vazquez recounts the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Maria and shares how the Laura Bush Foundation’s 2017 Disaster Relief grants have benefited school libraries and students:

Tell us about the devastation Puerto Rico saw last fall after the hurricanes.

As a result of Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was a war zone. 100 percent of the island was without electricity or potable water. Most of the cell phone towers had fallen, so cellular communication was extremely limited. For weeks after the hurricane, a curfew was in effect from six in the evening until six in the morning to protect police officers directing traffic during the day and for general safety. There were long lines to purchase gasoline and diesel needed to run generators. We learned to get up at six in the morning to enter the grocery store, 20 people at a time, to buy food and water. We shared the little resources we had with our neighbors and had to look out for each other.

How were schools affected?

Schools are at the heart of our communities. After Hurricane Maria, they were left inoperable due to the lack of water, electricity or damage caused by fallen trees or flying debris. Materials, books, supplies, furniture and equipment were lost or damaged from the water running through the hallways and windows, and due to the strong winds. Our daily life was at a standstill until children could go back to school so parents could go back to work. We realized that the sooner children returned to school the sooner the recovery process could begin. The first schools to gain water operated as lunchrooms for the community serving hundreds of meals a day and serving as a support center for families. Many schools started in November and December as electricity was reestablished. Some finished the school year with a half-day schedule, as they did not regain electricity until May.

 Do you have a memorable story about a school that received a Laura Bush Foundation 2017 Disaster Relief Initiative grant?

The school librarian and principal of Gloria Maria Borrero School had no water, electricity, cellular service to make calls or internet service following the hurricane. Every few days they would drive to town where they found a spot with signal they could access on their cell phones. On one of those visits, the librarian saw an email about Laura Bush Foundation’s Disaster Relief Initiative, and completed the grant application on her phone and submitted it with a prayer that it would be received. They cried tears of joy when they received the award letter in June. They are beyond excited to fill their empty shelves with books for their students.

How have you seen the Disaster Relief grants make a difference for schools in Puerto Rico so far?

Through books, students can explore their feelings and emotions, discover ways to understand themselves and the world around them, and gain hope for a brighter future. Most of our students have access to books only through their school library since there are very few bookstores and community libraries on the island. Providing books to school libraries in need has helped students in Puerto Rico get back to normal.

I’ve also seen how these grants have positively impacted librarians. When librarians receive books from organizations, they rarely have the opportunity to be involved in the selection process. The Laura Bush Foundation Disaster Relief Initiative allows librarians to order exactly what they want based on the needs of their schools and students. Trust me when I tell you that the Laura Bush Foundation is transforming these librarians experience in many ways!