Beth Merrill ’94  at the library she helped launch in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

The college semester Beth Merrill ’94  spent in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, would shape her life’s work. Filling in for a local teacher in the La Chispa neighborhood, Merrill made enduring connections with the families there. When she returned several years later, she asked community members what they most needed, and their answer was a library. Back home in Vermont, in 2001, Merrill founded the nonprofit Planting Hope, which raised the money and built the library. More than 20 years on, the organization she heads still works to foster literacy in La Chispa and cultural exchange between the two countries.

What has kept you dedicated to Planting Hope? 

During my semester in Nicaragua, I learned so much about what we really need to be happy. It turned out that what I needed wasn’t in the large suitcase I had brought from the U.S. I learned about the power of simply being together and relying on other people. At the same time, it was difficult to teach a class of 40 first-graders how to read and write and do math without any educational resources. Kids needed pencils, pencil sharpeners, and books. 

During those months in Nicaragua, and for years afterward, I constantly returned to the question, "How can we level the playing field and pool the resources that are abundant in the U.S. to bring more resources to education in Nicaragua?" The answer came in 2001, when I returned to Nicaragua and surveyed kids in the community about their needs. A library was the initial answer, and years later we continue to answer that question the best we can, bringing books, educational games, and dynamic classes and teaching methods to both our staff and Nicaraguan students.

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What impact has the pandemic had on the organization?

Unfortunately, we’ve had to cancel our Service-Learning Adventure Trips to Nicaragua, which were our main source of income to support the organization. This means we’ve had to scale down our operations and budget to make up for this loss. Some staff have been working remotely, forming pods of kids in their own neighborhoods, which means we are able to get books to kids we hadn’t previously worked with. We were also able to use the time when the library was empty to catalog all of our books and create an online library where kids can now browse and request books from a phone, which our mobile library delivers. 

Could you describe an unforgettable moment or accomplishment related to the work?

Recently, a staff person in Nicaragua formed a "pod" of preschool children in her neighborhood to whom she would read and lend books each day. These were kids with absolutely no access to books in their homes, so these were the first books they’d ever held. They quickly caught on and discovered they loved reading. Every time they saw her, they’d ask, "Maywalina, when are you going to bring us new books? We’ve already read the ones we have!" That such a simple act can have such a positive impact on a kid is really remarkable and truly what keeps all of us going, even during the hard times.

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