As a young girl, Susy Siel would bring books along with her to Eleuthera, an island in The Bahamas, where she would often read on the beach.
As the daughter of pilots, Siel and her sisters grew up frequently traveling to the island for extended stays.
The retired Kenosha Unified teacher and librarian now opens libraries and helps create greater access to learning opportunities with technology in the same place that was a second home to her as a child.
“You know, I started coming to the Bahamas in the 1960s as a kid,” said Siel, whose parents would drop them off in Gregory Town with a local couple who became their adopted family.
Later in her career in 2000, Siel sought professional opportunities that would eventually lead to tens of thousands of books being delivered to her beloved island home. With the help of other organizations she set up a few libraries, but at the time much of the work was based in teaching and seminars.
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“In 2012, I had a couple other like-minded individuals join me and we decided to become a non-profit and incorporate and build on the work that I’d already started,” she said. “And now, we’re 12 libraries into it.”
Over the past decade, Siel has established libraries for Eleuthera’s 10,000 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 also 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 Siel, some of the settlements already had what she considered “rooms with books in them.” The dilapidated government-owned buildings had once been “teacher cottages,” typically two to three bedroom homes.
“They called them libraries and there were a couple of those already in existence when I started in 2012, so we actually renovated a lot of those 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 to construct and design the space.
Providing new book collections, computers, building renovations and, most importantly, training and cataloging for library staff have transformed the spaces into much-needed educational centers.
“I often say they’re not going to name a library after me because that’s not the goal. The goal is to be able to build leaders in various settlements via literacy development,” she said. “So, if I could build leaders, then they can run their own site.”
Siel said she would then continue to oversee ongoing professional development, manage collections, as well as the library’s online and social media presence.
“I’m very involved even after we set up the library because, to me, the power of the library really begins once we’ve set it up,” she said. “It’s a lot of work to set up and I have lots of volunteers come from Kenosha, all over the United States, actually.”
After 27 years of teaching and being a librarian, Siel is happy to trade in driving in snow opting for water ferry and golf cart commutes for parts of the year. Beyond curating books, she has helped to create careers for Eleutherans, equipping some who only have high school diplomas with the skills of seasoned librarians.
“What they are learning now took me years to learn,” said Siel of the librarians. “Our mission is to change people’s lives through free access to literacy. I want the libraries to be a vibrant, engaging and motivating place for kids to learn and love. I truly value the power of literacy and education in terms of what it can produce for future leaders in The Bahamas.”
Siel and her organization have spent $340,000 to create and improve all 12 library sites on Eleuthera. In addition to local like-minded, non-profit agencies, the libraries benefit from Freedom to Read Inc.’s partnerships with Follett School Solutions of McHenry Ill.; Seacor Island Lines in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; and ComputerReach in Pittsburgh.
She also works to secure grants which help offset shipping costs, books and computers, renovations and professional development for the library staff.
Siel’s outreach on the island has also extended beyond establishing libraries or educational centers. About three years ago, Siel was in Eleuthera when Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 hurricane, devastated The Bahamas.
Non-profit agencies, hers included, were among those who assisted victims of the hurricane. Siel and several friends were able to set up computer stations with mobile WiFi to identify those who had escaped the storm.
“All of the non-profits here … really were stepping up their game to help fellow Bahamians who were in incredible need,” she said. “We were rescuing people for days. It was really a humbling experience.”
During the pandemic, her job transformed again. In 2020, Siel was supposed to be in Eleuthera for just four months.
“I ended up staying much longer because it wasn’t safe for me to come back to Wisconsin,” said Siel, who splits her time living in Kenosha and The Bahamas. “We were way locked down.”
The island was under a curfew, as well.
“We almost actually didn’t make it because of the pandemic. We’re a non-profit and we rely on the generosity of the grassroots movement,” she said.
In September of 2020, Siel, who had permission to travel, said the superintendent of the Royal Bahamian Police agreed she was an essential worker and was allowed to work solo in the libraries. She also made the executive decision to recommend to her board of directors they give away computers intended for library use to families who were in need so their children could participate virtually in school. Siel re-imaged the computers so that students could access a variety of virtual online platforms from Skype to Zoom.
“Our kids here have access to no devices. Some don’t have internet,” she said. “I gave them away to families that were needy … we had a 100 that were brought in and I gave away 60 computers.”
While the organization’s mission is to change lives through free literacy access, Siel said that giving away technology “at that moment that was the right decision.”
“My computers all went to kids who would have really no access to a device and would have been disenfranchised from school altogether,” she said.
Students who needed access to internet could sit right outside the library and use the free WiFi to do their school or homework, according to Siel.
Continues to grow
So far, there are more than 150 computers, and 40,000-plus volumes of books that circulate from the Freedom to Read Inc.’s partner library sites and more computers are expected this year, according to Siel.
Now, with libraries open again, Siel said Freedom to Read Inc. is “uniquely positioned” to meet the community’s needs, as well as, the demands for student learning and plans to help students who may have lost access to learning during the pandemic to enable them to get back on track. Teachers, administrators and tutors all have the opportunity to meet with students to provide enhanced instruction while at the partner libraries.
Siel has also provided training to the island’s Ministry of Education supported library staff developing a model of excellence at each library. In addition to local Eleuthera’s residents, Siel noted many tourists and visitors use the library services and donate books, as well.