How shipping containers covered with pink polka dots are helping kids read

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Posted at 4:23 PM, Sep 08, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-10 13:58:57-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- As CBS 6 focuses on ensuring children in metro Richmond have access to books during the annual Scripps Howard Fund “If You Give a Child a Book..." drive, there are other parts of the world that need help too.

Throughout sub-Saharan Africa many children read below their grade level, according to research. This is partly due to overcrowded classrooms, poor teacher training and not having the support at home to foster a learning environment.

For example, in the town of Kabarent, Kenya, Stephanie Nasbe Johnson of Virginia, said a child would be considered very lucky to make it to secondary school.

In fact, many children drop out after eighth grade or sooner to help contribute to their family's vitality by working in the fields, getting jobs, or helping around the house. Children make up almost half of the city’s population but even with 20 schools There is only one library, which isn’t free.

“While it's not a lot in terms of our money, it was considerable for them. It may have only been $0.20, but $0.20 is the same cost as a lunch for a child,” Stephanie Johnson said. “So they have to make a decision. Do I go to the library and pay for this resource, or do I eat today? And maybe it's not so drastic, but it is a concern for those children having access to these resources. Many students in the schools there don't own their own textbooks, which is already a change from what we see in a lot of places in the States. They don't have access to those public libraries for free. They don't have access to a school library in the same way that we're used to.”

Johnson’s mom, Chris Nasbe, wanted to change this after being on a Peace Corps trip in Kabarent. Then in 2016 the nonprofit Polkadot Library shipped -- literally.

“It's called the Polkadot Library because it is a shipping container that we painted purple with pink polka dots. So that thing certainly made a statement when it was on the freighter on the way over to Kenya,” Johnson said. “Everybody saw it coming, literally saw it coming down the street. And you could see just trails of people behind it, trying to see what's going on. So then when we actually put it in place, of course, all the kids gathered around for us to open it.”

It is a community space with solar power that is a free library open to everyone at any age with computers, meeting areas and a thriving garden. It is all in and around a 40-foot shipping container painted purple with pink polka dots.

One educational tool that seems to be the most popular is reading bingo.

“Instead of having numbers like normal bingo, we did reading accomplishments. So whether one was to complete a book or draw a picture about the story, write a book report, read to a friend, bring a friend to the library, all of those were boxes on the bingo sheet,” Johnson said. “And then when they got a line, they got a small prize, whether it was a notebook or a pencil or an eraser that fit on the end of the pencil. Who would have thought that these kids would be so overjoyed by an external eraser?”

The entire program compliments the Kenyan education system offering English immersion, science, math, reading, art and agriculture to about 17,000 students a year. Based on data from one local primary school, those students that participated in the Polkadot Library programs had increased engagement in the classroom and improved comprehension in reading and writing skills.

The educational focus is on primary education, K through eighth grade, or “class” at they refer to them. But they are also trying to touch as many people in the community as possible so there is no age requirement to utilize the resources.

“Not only are we giving back to the economy, but we're also buying local goods that the community can also resource for themselves,” Johnson said reflecting on time in Kenya. “So we really appreciate donations as much as we want the books. Any financial contributions enable us to use the money in the way that is best suited for them at the time. So we thank you for your support, and I thank you for highlighting this for us.”

The Polkadot Library has a silent auction fundraiser on Sept. 24. Click here to learn more about the event and how to you can contribute.

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