One late night, many years ago, Jim and Doray were driving around downtown Iloilo City, looking for a 24-hour store to buy something they could munch on. They ended up at a little Dunkin’ Donut store. Outside, street children were playing by the curb, in between begging people for alms and offering to watch parked cars for a fee.
Back then, children out on the street fending for themselves in the dead of night was a familiar sight to Doray and she didn’t give it any thought. In the Philippines, scenes of abject poverty are all around. Growing up in the midst of it, she had become inured to it.
But, not her husband. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa, Jim wasn’t a stranger to the sight of poor children needing care and attention. However, little kids playing on the streets of Iloilo bothered him so much so that it was a topic of intense discussion between Doray and him for a long time after that. He later told her that if he had all the money in the world, he would build a place for poor Ilonggo children where they could be safe, where they could learn, and where they could play as children are meant to play—in an enriched, carefully planned, and well-prepared environment with developmentally appropriate materials.
Jim and Doray are teachers. All together, they’ve taught children, teenagers, and adults–in four different Asian countries, and are now teaching in California. Every year, since they’ve been married, they’ve come home to Iloilo, and every year, since that night outside the donut store, this spark of a dream to build a place where children can safely play and learn, grew and grew.
Meanwhile, every year, every time they came back to the Philippines, they noticed signs of the slow, yet steady, economic recovery of the country. They also noticed that in the rush to set up new development projects and expand manufacturing and retail centers, Filipino political and business leaders seemed to overlook the fact that all these outward signs of progress translated into less and less green space for children—and adults, rich and poor—to enjoy and appreciate.
Jim grew up in a small town in the state of Washington, the “Evergreen State,” while Doray grew up in a small subdivision in the outskirts of Bacolod City. Both of them were lucky enough to have enjoyed a childhood where nature was all around them and they could play and learn in it to their hearts’ desire. Both of them were also lucky enough to have had hard-working parents who believed in the value of education and instilled in them the discipline and the passion to pursue it.
And so, they became teachers who loved the outdoors and valued books and literacy. Jim teaches in an elementary charter school located in a low-income neighborhood in Stockton; Doray teaches in a charter school that offers Montessori education for free in Sacramento.
When they relocated to the US, one of the public institutions that Doray was fascinated with was the American public library. Growing up in her little subdivision in Bacolod City, and later, in Iloilo City, she had never seen anything like it. Oh, she knew libraries existed and the schools she went to had libraries. But, the public libraries in her neighborhood were neither child-friendly nor contained the kind and the number of materials that American public libraries had.
When Doray went to visit the Smithsonian with Jim, the experience was a life-changing one for her. She was awestruck and deeply moved by the sheer number and variety of books and artifacts that were available—for free—to all who cared to immerse themselves in these precious learning tools. She was also deeply saddened that back in Iloilo, home to almost half a million Filipinos, there was nothing that came close to a public library that offered a variety of reading materials that were interesting, thought-provoking, inspiring, progressive, or even current.
Where Jim and Doray now live, there are three public libraries for a diverse population, half that of Iloilo City. These libraries house everything a child—or an adult—could enjoy. Every time Doray visits an American library, part of her is sad, and just a bit mad, that there is nothing like it in Iloilo—or even in the Philippines—and that only those who have the resources are able to provide their children with the space and the materials that they need at the most crucial time of their development.
A few days after Christmas of 2010, Apple Solis approached Doray for ideas for a literacy and education project that a group of concerned citizens wanted to implement in Iloilo City. When she got back to the US, she immediately cobbled together a concept paper and proposal for Basa sa Bata (Read to a Child), a storybook read-aloud project involving student teachers from West Visayas State University and selected day care centers around Iloilo City. She thought it would be a wonderful first step to move a deeply personal vision out to the public—even if she and Jim were thousands of miles away. 1Meal Program, a non-government initiative to support Iloilo public schools and their students, funded Basa sa Bata. Judging from the responses of the day care providers, the children, and the student teachers, Basa sa Bata was a success.
Today, Woods and Books, our dream, is slowly coming to fruition. Thanks to like-minded friends and supporters who very kindly and generously give of themselves, their time, their talents, and their resources, we are taking little steps, sprouting tiny branches, in our quest to provide a natural shelter and sanctuary for the children of Iloilo.