NOW WATCH: Retired Kenosha Unified teacher opens library, expands access to technology on Bahamian island | Local News

As a young girl, Susy Siel brought books with her to Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas, where she often read on the beach.

As the daughter of pilots, Siel and her sisters grew up traveling frequently to the island for long stays.

The retired Kenosha Unified teacher and librarian now opens libraries and helps create greater access to learning opportunities with technology in the same place that was her second home as a child.

“You know, I started coming to the Bahamas in the 1960s as a kid,” said Siel, whose parents would leave them in Gregory Town with a local couple who became their adopted family.

Later in her career in 2000, Siel pursued professional opportunities that would eventually lead to the delivery of tens of thousands of books to her beloved island home. With the help of other organizations she set up several libraries, but at that time most of the work was based on teaching and seminars.

“In 2012, I had a few other like-minded individuals and we decided to become a non-profit and incorporate and build on the work I had already started,” she said. “And now, we have 12 libraries in it.”

People are also reading…

Over the past decade, Siel has created libraries for Eleuthera’s 10,000 residents and others on the 110-mile-long island east of Nassau. They are supported by an organization she founded called Freedom to Read Inc., which also reflects the name of the island itself. Named by the country’s first settlers, Eleuthera comes from the Greek word for “freedom.”

A series of challenges

According to Siel, some of the settlements already had what she considered “rooms with books in them.” The dilapidated government-owned buildings had once been “teachers’ houses”, usually two- to three-bedroom houses.

“They called them libraries and there were a few of those that existed when I started in 2012, so we actually renovated a lot of them and brought in new collections and computers,” she said.

Some of the buildings were roofless and without windows, doors or floors, she said, describing the challenge of building and designing the space.

Provision of new book collections, computers, renovation of buildings and, most importantly, training and cataloging of library staff have transformed the spaces into much-needed educational centers.

“I often say that they will not name a library after me, because that is not the intention. The goal is to be able to build leaders in different settlements through literacy development,” she said. “So if I can build leaders, then they can build their site.”

Siel said she will then continue to oversee ongoing professional development, manage the collections, as well as the library’s online and social media presence.

“I’m very involved even after we get the library up because, to me, the power of the library really starts after we get it up,” she said. “It’s a lot of work to raise and I have a lot of volunteers coming from Kenosha, actually from all over the United States.”

After 27 years of teaching and being a librarian, Siel is happy to trade in the snowmobile, opting for water ferries and golf carts for parts of the year. Beyond curating books, she has helped create careers for Eleutherans, equipping some with only high school degrees with the skills of experienced librarians.

“What they’re learning now took me years to learn,” said Siel of the librarians. “Our mission is to change people’s lives through free access to literacy. I want libraries to be a lively, engaging and motivating place for children to learn and love. I truly appreciate the power of literacy and education in terms of what it can produce for future leaders in the Bahamas.”

Siel and her organization have spent $340,000 to create and improve all 12 library sites in Eleuthera. In addition to like-minded local nonprofit agencies, libraries benefit from the Freedom to Read Inc. partnership. with Follett School Solutions of McHenry Ill.; Seacor Island Lines in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; and ComputerReach in Pittsburgh.

It also works to secure grants that help offset the costs of transportation, books and computers, renovations, and professional development for library staff.

Hurricane, pandemic

Ciel’s reach on the island has extended beyond the creation of libraries or educational centers. About three years ago, Siel was in Eleuthera when Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 hurricane, devastated the Bahamas.

Nonprofit agencies, including her own, were among those helping hurricane victims. Siel and some friends were able to set up computer stations with mobile WiFi to identify storm survivors.

“All the nonprofits here … were really stepping up their game to help fellow Bahamians who were in dire need,” she said. “We were rescuing people for days. It was truly a humbling experience.”

During the pandemic, her work was transformed again. In 2020, Siel was supposed to be in Eleuthera for just four months.

“I ended up staying a lot longer because it wasn’t safe for me to go back to Wisconsin,” said Siel, who splits her time living in Kenosha and the Bahamas. “We were very closed off.”

The island was also under a curfew.

“We almost didn’t make it because of the pandemic. We are a non-profit organization and rely on the generosity of the grassroots movement,” she said.

In September 2020, Siel, who had a permit to travel, said the supervisor of the Royal Bahamian Constabulary agreed that she was an essential worker and was allowed to work alone in libraries. She also made the executive decision to recommend to her board of directors that library computers be given to families in need so that their children could attend school virtually. Siel re-imaged the computers so students could access a variety of virtual online platforms from Skype to Zoom.

“Our children here do not have access to any equipment. “Some don’t have internet,” she said. “I gave them to families that were in need … we had 100 brought to us and I gave them 60 computers.”

While the organization’s mission is to change lives through free access to literacy, Siel said giving away the technology “at that moment was the right decision.”

“My computers all went to kids who wouldn’t really have any access to a device and would have been completely deprived of school,” she said.

Students who needed Internet access could sit outside the library and use the free WiFi to do school or homework, according to Siel.

It continues to grow

To date, there are more than 150 computers and over 40,000 volumes of books circulating from Freedom to Read Inc.’s partner library sites. and more computers are expected this year, according to Siel.

Now, with libraries open again, Siel said Freedom to Read Inc. is “uniquely positioned” to meet community needs as well as student learning demands and plans to assist students who may have lost access to learning during the pandemic. enable them to get back on track. Teachers, administrators, and tutors all have the opportunity to meet with students to provide extended instruction while at partner libraries.

Siel has also provided training for library staff supported by the island’s Ministry of Education, developing a model of excellence in each library. In addition to local Eleuthera residents, Siel noted that many tourists and visitors use the library’s services and donate books as well.

Her organization encourages all who value the positive power of an educated society to consider donating at www.freedomtoreadinc.org.

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