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Written by Paola Martinez, a Good Deeds Day ally in Manabi, Ecuador. Translated by Maddie Fox.

My name is Paola Martínez, and I am the director and founder of the Clara Luna Foundation. Since 2010, I have worked to educate children, teenagers, and their families through the joys of reading.

At the age of 17, in my last two years of high school, I had the opportunity to do volunteer work on Trinitaria Island, a marginalized, urban area of Guayaquil, Ecuador. There we worked with preschool children and helped the teachers prepare teaching materials for their classes. This experience marked my life, helping me to understand the importance of giving back and being grateful for what I receive every day.

At the age of 30, I moved to Puerto López, where I decided to start book clubs. This was not successful, as there were a lack of adult readers. After a year working with school students I was able to identify the real needs of my community: children and young people only had access to academic texts. They did not have access to literary texts, much less to libraries. In addition, there was a lack of a vision for the future amongst the youth. The absence of extracurricular activities and the lack of attention to sex education led to many young women becoming pregnant at an early age. To change this reality, Clara Luna was born, a non-traditional educational space to bring children closer to books, offering encounters with children’s texts of literary quality that would awaken their curiosity.

In April 2016, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Ecuador’s coast. Our friends and supporters, worried about what happened and asked how they could help us. We received donations, but we had no plan for how to respond to the emergency. Finally, we took-action doing what we knew best: public reading sessions with the children. For 6 weeks we visited a total of 25 sites in the company of volunteers and friends who joined in to help. At each session, we read aloud “Where the Wild Things Are” by Maurice Sendak and “The Rainbow Fish” by Marcus Pfister. These books deal with themes of friendship and sharing. Each session ended with the question, “what are friends for?” We left each site with the satisfaction of having made new friends who shared with us the joy of reading, despite the challenges that the earthquake had brought to their communities.

During these visits we learned the realities faced by the areas affected by the earthquake. We encountered neglected neighborhoods that suffered from a certain isolation, places deprived of books and libraries. We met adults with little schooling who were distanced from the pleasure of reading. We spent time with communities facing social problems such as teenage pregnancy and violence against women and girls. We also identified volunteers working within these communities. Months later, we had the opportunity to expand our network by creating the “Cuentos en la Plaza” project, which consisted of mobile libraries. During this time, the volunteers maintained their commitment to bring the books to the streets. The mobile libraries became an educational tool for teaching gender equality.

Through the libraries we seek to achieve gender equality by empowering girls and women. We want to strengthen the self-esteem of girls and boys, so that they may know their potential, love each other, value each other, accept each other, and know how to bring about change. We also intend to raise awareness about gender roles in Ecuador, to question whether they are fair, and whether we can live with less prejudice, more liberty, and in peace. Before our sessions, we select 10 to 15 children’s books related to issues on gender equality. The children will have these books at their disposal to explore freely, followed by a group reflection on the theme of the book.

At one point in my volunteer work with a group of friends from the “Alégrate Puerto López” collective, we got together to work in a small school in a rural community called Los Platanales. One of the volunteers knew about the Good Deeds Day movement. For two weeks we carried out tasks to revamp one of the classrooms and the facade of the school. At the end of this work, we held an event with readings, art and a puppet show for the community. That was my first association with Good Deeds Day. What attracted me to this movement was the desire to make a unified effort, as well as the spirit of collaboration that was created between the community and the volunteers. It was a unique experience that reminded me of my school years on Trinitaria Island and what inspired me to work with books and libraries in the first place.

Each person one meets and treats with kind actions leaves a unique memory in the person who is donating their time to respectfully impact a life. Each look or smile received is priceless. It lets me recognize myself in others and allows me to discover that human beings do not get tired of giving because our nature demands these experiences. Good actions have given me valuable lessons in my daily life and have become a gratifying way of living that I try to incorporate in my personal and professional life. I am inspired to pay it forward in gratitude all that I have received in life. In our world today, the lack of human empathy can be alarming. Encouraging and empowering young readers is, in my opinion, what will allow books to fulfill their objective of transforming lives, and in turn inspire those impacted individuals to take action to improve their reality.

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