In the northeastern Argentine province of Chaco, the poorest part of the country, the Storytelling Grandmothers programme has been so successful that the Ministry of Education has taken up the idea and turned it into national policy.
The programme, launched five years ago by the Mempo Giardinelli Foundation, is as simple as it is effective. It basically consists of elderly people who volunteer to read books to children.
“The aim of the programme is to help children live better lives, because reading makes for a better life,” Argentine writer Mempo Giardinelli explained to IPS.
Originally intended as an activity for primary schools, it has now spread to hospitals, institutions for the disabled, soup kitchens that cater to children, orphanages and churches.
“This is our secret formula: affection, plus high-quality literature, equals children who read,” Natalia Porta López, the programme coordinator, remarked to IPS.
The grandmothers make weekly visits to the school or institution assigned to them, and read a different story each time to their young audience.
“The whole activity is centred on the book itself as object. The grandmothers teach its symbolic value in the most loving and generous way, in order to encourage reading from the earliest age,” the programme’s founding document states.
“The image of a storytelling grandmother captures that beautiful, intimate moment when an adult opens a book and says to a child: ‘I’m going to read you a story.’ It’s concrete, simple, and magical,” said Porta López.
“This custom has been abandoned, so somebody has to do it. The ‘storytelling grandmother’ is a symbolic figure. Anyone who is interested can take on this role and reconstruct that defining moment, women or men, of any age,” she explained.
The Foundation gives the volunteers guidance and training, advises them about use of voice and gestures, and provides the books and materials they need for their work.
Their records show that 130 “grandparents” have read to about 50,000 boys and girls, many of whom are indigenous children, from slums and working-class neighbourhoods.
“We believe that reading is a right. We’re facing a state of emergency: people are hungry and thirsty for education,” Porta López said.
The programme was founded by Giardinelli in his home province, Chaco, which according to official figures has the highest poverty levels in the country.
More than 60 percent of the population of this province, and nearly 75 percent of children under 14, live below the poverty line.
“These children don’t have books at home. They really enjoy touching them, it’s extraordinary. You realise that they have no contact with books…,” Beatriz Oest, one of the grandmothers taking part in the programme in the provincial capital, told IPS.
Indeed Matías, one of the children, said after the story-reading session one day: “It was like a birthday party, but with books.”
Colombia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela have shown interest in Storytelling Grandmothers, which operates in 13 Argentine cities.
“I’m very pleased to see how it’s expanding, like a healthy, beneficial epidemic. Which in fact it is,” said Giardinelli.
“We have developed a technology based on solidarity, which is extremely low-cost, produces great results, is highly sustainable and has enormous growth potential,” he added.
“It’s such a little thing one gives, but it becomes so big,” María Ester Enrico, a grandmother in the city of 9 de Julio in the province of Buenos Aires, told IPS, moved by the tokens of affection she receives.
The programme also has a significant gender-specific effect, given that the volunteers are mainly educated women over 50, who are excluded from the labour market by fierce competition, said the organisers.
“Here they find a new, meaningful use for their time and their capacity to give affection,” they emphasised.
Indeed, the common denominator among the grandmothers is their delight in reading.
“Some of us, like myself, have kept the books belonging to our own children, and we use them, under the supervision of the Foundation, of course,” Oest related.
In effect, the reading material is selected by experts. Universal classics, myths and legends, as well as works by high-quality contemporary writers are among the books chosen.
“A child who reads stories today will read other things tomorrow, and will have tools with which to get along in the world, which is what these children are lacking today,” Enrico said.
The Ministry of Education, in the meantime, has decided to use the programme as a model to be applied nationwide from April.
“Our motto is: ‘Reading is eye-opening,'” Giardinelli stated. ***** + ARGENTINA: Bringing Preschool Education to the Slums (http://www.ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=31980) + Mempo Giardinelli Foundation – in Spanish (http://www.fundamgiardinelli.org.ar/fundacion.htm)