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

As a young girl, Susie Ciel took books with her to Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas, where she often read on the beach.

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

The retired Kenosha Unified teacher and librarian is now opening libraries and helping to create more 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 ’60s as a kid,” said Ciel, whose parents left them in Gregory Town with a local couple who became their adopted family.

Later in her career in 2000, Ciel 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 established several libraries, but at that time much of the work was based on teaching and seminars.

“In 2012 I was joined by a few other like-minded people and we decided to become a non-profit organization and incorporate and build on the work I had already started,” she said. “And now we’re 12 libraries into it.”

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Over the past decade, Siel has created libraries for 10,000 Eleuthera 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 reflects the name of the island itself. Named by the country’s first settlers, Eleuthera comes from the Greek word for “freedom.”

A number of challenges

According to Ciel, some of the settlements already had what she thought were “rooms with books in them.” The dilapidated government buildings were once “teacher houses,” usually two- to three-bedroom homes.

“They were called libraries and a few of them already 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 constructing and designing the space.

The provision of new book collections, computers, building renovations, and, most importantly, the training and cataloging of library staff have transformed the spaces into much-needed educational centers.

“I often say they won’t name a library after me because that’s not the goal. The goal is to be able to build leaders in different localities through literacy development,” she said. “So if I can build leads, then they can run their own site.”

Ciel 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’ve created the library, because to me the power of the library really starts once we set it up,” she said. “It’s a lot of work to create and I have a lot of volunteers coming from Kenosha, actually all over the United States.”

After 27 years of teaching and librarianship, Ciel is happy to trade driving in the snow, opting for water ferry and golf cart trips part of the year. In addition to curating books, she has helped create careers for Eleutherans, equipping some with only high school diplomas with the skills of experienced librarians.

“What they’re teaching now took me years to learn,” said Seal 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 they can bring to the future leaders of The Bahamas.”

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

She also works to secure grants that help offset the costs of supplies, books and computers, repairs and professional development for library staff.

Hurricane, pandemic

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

Nonprofit agencies, including hers, were among those helping hurricane victims. Ciel and a few friends were able to set up computer stations with mobile WiFi to identify those who had escaped the storm.

“All the nonprofits here … really stepped up their game to help Bahamians who were in incredible need,” she said. “For days we saved people. It was a really humbling experience.”

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

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

The island was also under curfew.

“Actually, 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, Ciel, who had a permit to travel, said the chief of the Royal Bahamas Police Force agreed that she was an essential worker and was allowed to work independently in the libraries. She also made the executive decision to recommend to her board of directors that they distribute computers designed for library use to families in need so that their children can participate in school virtually. Siel has transformed the computers so that students can access a variety of virtual online platforms from Skype to Zoom.

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

Although the organization’s mission is to change lives through free access to literacy, Ciel said giving away technology “was the right decision at this point.”

“All my computers went to kids who really wouldn’t have had access to a device and would have been completely out of school,” she said.

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

It continues to grow

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

Now that the libraries have reopened, Ciel said Freedom to Read Inc. is “uniquely positioned” to meet community needs as well as student learning requirements and plans to help students who may have lost access to learning during the pandemic to get back on track. Teachers, administrators, and faculty have the opportunity to meet with students to provide enhanced instruction while in the partner libraries.

Siel also provided training to the island’s Department of Education library staff, which is developing a model of excellence in each library. In addition to Eleuthera locals, Siel noted that many tourists and visitors also use the library’s services and donate books.

Her organization encourages anyone who appreciates the positive power of a literate society to consider donating to www.freedomtoreadinc.org.

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