"Goodnight Possum": How our volunteers are bringing their favorite books to Arequipa

In third grade my mom started reading The Chronicles of Narnia to me every night before bed. Some people start the series with The Magician’s Nephew, but mom and I started with The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. We would lay on the white shag carpet next to my bed, her leaning against the pink velour of my pillow and me against the softness of her sweater as she read to me, her voice undulating through paragraphs and chapters.

I grew up in a family that valued reading, a family where there were always picture books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar on shelves exactly my height, and a family where there was always someone there to read to me. Kat Gronn, one of our volunteers from Australia, grew up in a home a lot like mine.

Kat’s mom used to be a primary school teacher, and as such she always encouraged reading. Kat and her brother and sister were read to before bed, and they were always taught that reading wasn’t just something you did for school—reading was something fun, something to be valued and enjoyed.

Though Kat’s household facilitated a love of reading, books have always been especially important to Kat. While Kat’s brother went through a phase in which he rejected reading, Kat fully embraced it. She tried a myriad of activities growing up, but always found herself coming back to her local library in Melbourne. She loved the Babysitter’s Club books, and anything that came in a series. Kat also told us she “loved all books except for the ones people told me to read. If I was told to read it, I avoided it.”

Considering her love of books, it is not surprising that Kat decided to take on the renovation of the library at Casa Hogar Torre Fuerte in the hope of transforming it into something beautiful.

A few months ago Kat was in her final semester at Charles Stuart in New South Wales, finishing librarian school. She had spent 5 years in libraries working in assistant positions, and she decided she wanted to do something different—have a positive impact. So she did her research, found Casa Hogar Torre Fuerte, proposed her idea—which we loved—and then went straight to fundraising.

Before coming to Arequipa, Kat organized a Trivia Night and spent 6 months fundraising in Australia, raising around 3,000 AUD so that she would be able to buy anything and everything needed to renovate the library at Casa Hogar. With that money, Kat was able to buy 219 new books for the library, 4 bean bags, and a lot of office supplies and contact paper to protect and organize the new books.

After arriving in Arequipa in mid-August, Kat started working on the library right away. She scoured the city looking for books—a sometimes difficult task here because many books are counterfeited—making sure that they would be of interest and an appropriate reading level for the girls. She also made a concerted effort to find books that told their stories, not just books from other countries and cultures that had been translated into Spanish. Kat brought over about 10 kilos of her own supplies, but also sorted through the winding streets around Mercado San Camilo to find contact paper for wrapping books, labeling supplies, and bean bag balls.

But the bean bag balls deserve an extra mention.

Kat found four bean bags at her local Target store in Australia - two shaped like watermelon and two blue with rainbow sprinkles - with the goal of finding bean bag balls to fill them once in Arequipa, as filled bean bags take up a bit too much luggage space and are typically counted as a personal item on most commercial flights.

After arriving, Kat searched and scoured the city for bean bag balls for three weeks, during which time she never gave up hope. After finding a traveler’s blog that mentioned a hostel with bean bags in Arequipa, Kat contacted said hostel and asked where they had gotten their bean bag balls from. After being given a block where the hostel thought the bean bag balls were sold, Kat searched every shop until she found them. And if there’s one thing I have learned about Kat during her time here is that she’s dedicated, determined, and she does her research—and all of these traits have helped make her project amazing.

After six weeks of office work, looking for books, and restocking contact paper, Kat was able to put her new books into the library at Casa Hogar. She separated them into reading levels so the girls can easily pick something at their reading level. After the books were stacked, organized, and aesthetically arranged, the girls were able to come in and browse through their new library. To say they loved it would be an understatement.

They sat two-to-a-bean-bag and took every book off the shelf, turning the pages and stacking their favorites next to them for easy access. Corinna kept showing me pages from a book on deep sea creatures, showing me pictures of lion seals and great white sharks. Victoria picked out a green Peter Pan book that I read to her, watching her eyebrows raise as Captain Hook chased out the lost boys and Tinker Bell helped save the day.

As they ran their fingers across beautifully illustrated Spanish versions of Goodnight Possum and the Eric Carl’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, I thought about my mom running her fingers over my childhood bookcase, picking out Blueberries for Sal because she knew it was my favorite. Until now, I never realized how special that was. To have a bookcase full of books and someone ready to read to me.

From all of us here at Volunteers Peru, we want to say a huge thank you to Kat for giving the girls a library. For buying 219 books the girls can escape into when they are lost or sad or frustrated, or just want to have fun. Kat put in a lot of hours in the office and worked through a massive language barrier to make this happen for the girls, and we are really, truly thankful.

We are also excited because Kat has made the library a sustainable project; she has provided instruction manuals and supplies so that we can continue growing the library, little by little. We ask that future volunteers consider buying a book, or maybe look for the Spanish version of their favorite childhood book before they come so they can bring a piece of their life and culture to Arequipa to share with the girls. Through these small additions, we hope to someday fill every inch of the library shelves with books.

From all of us here at Volunteers Peru, we want to say good luck to Kat as she moves on to her next adventure and backpacks through South America for the next four months. Wherever she is, a piece of her will always be in the library at Casa Hogar Torre Fuerte - and we wouldn’t want it any other way.


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