After he retires next year, Williams Athletic Director Bob Peck will have much more time to travel. He plans on using some of this time to go to Nicaragua, but not for vacation. Peck has been involved in humanitarian efforts aimed at the impoverished Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua for the last 20 years, and after retiring he will be able to dedicate more time to the cause.
Since Peck has been the athletic director, he has donated used athletic equipment to schools in Nicaragua, invited Nicaraguan basketball coaches to Williams for “basketball internships” and personally financed the college educations of Nicaraguan youths.
His latest project is one that will not seem foreign after serving on the administration of Williams for 28 years. Elected as a member of the Board of Trustees for a newly developed university on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, Peck is trying, among other things, to get enough books donated from liberal arts schools in the United States to provide the new university with adequate libraries.
During spring break, Peck took David Pilachowski, head librarian of Sawyer, to Nicaragua to assess the existing libraries of the university, which are still in their nascent stages. Peck and Pilachowski evaluated two of the five branches of the university, which are spaced along the eastern coast; they also visited public libraries in some of the nation’s small coastal cities. Pilachowski said the university libraries were fairly organized, with two trained librarians each. But with an average of about 5000 volumes each, their collections were very small. Most of the textbooks were also outdated, especially those in the field of science. Pilachowski’s description of the public libraries was discouraging: “In a city on the northern coast, the community library consisted of six shelves of books, nothing more.”
After visiting the libraries, Pilachowski contacted other head librarians from liberal arts schools around the country, asking them to donate unwanted or duplicate copies of books. The response has been positive; twelve schools have already agreed to contribute books. Peck and Pilachowski are now turning their attention to Williams students in an effort to collect more books. Along with the help of sophomore Sophie de la Barra, they are organizing a book drive, asking Williams students to donate all of their unwanted books.
Like Peck, de la Barra has a history of helping the Atlantic Coast communities of Nicaragua. Her mother has been involved with various development projects on the east coast, on which de la Barra had the opportunity to help out. She also developed a passion for helping the Nicaraguan people. “The east coast is an amazing mix of cultures, histories and languages. The people there are amazing, and there’s a great need for all kinds of help. When I learned that Williams was working on this project with the libraries, I wanted to find out what they were working on and see if there was anyway I could get involved,” said de la Barra. Besides helping organize the book drive, de la Barra is also planning on spending the summer in Nicaragua, using her knowledge of Spanish and English to catalogue donated books for the university and community libraries.
Unlike Peck and de la Barra, Pilachowski had never been to Central America before his trip this spring and describes the experience as eye-opening. He was deeply inspired by the pride and determination of the Nicaraguan people on the Atlantic Coast despite the impoverishment and destitution that, for many, make survival difficult.
Pilachowski recalls meagerly-constructed houses littered throughout the coastal countryside: “Many houses have walls made of metal or wood…they don’t have indoor plumbing, they don’t have electricity in their homes. Once it gets dark, it is totally dark. They have kerosene but use it only sparingly,” Pilachowski said. With all the adversity these people face, I don’t know how they make it, but somehow, they do. And they remain good-spirited,” Pilachowski said.
Although several humanitarian organizations are trying to ameliorate the dire conditions of the Atlantic Coast, it remains the poorest region of Nicaragua. Southern coastal communities like Blue Fields, where one of the university branches is located, are still recovering from Hurricane Joan of 1988, which destroyed 80 percent of Blue Field’s homes and all of its crops. The northern coast continues to suffer from the ravage of the Sandinista-Contra War of the ’80s, which virtually halted all commerce in the area. And with no roads linking the impoverished Atlantic Coast with the densely populated, commercially-oriented Managua and the Western half of the country, the Atlantic Coast suffers from virtual economic isolation.
All of these factors have contributed to startling statistics: an unemployment rate of approximately 80 percent and a literacy rate of only 50 percent. But the region is rich in gold, seafood and timber, and the people are rich in culture. Mostly black, they speak Spanish, English and Creole.
By supporting developing universities in the region, Peck is attempting to give the Nicaraguan people the surest tool for socioeconomic ascension, a good education. With the literacy rate at such a low level, the goal of educating young Nicaraguans on the Atlantic Coast will be difficult, but one that will continue to inspire Pilachowski. “People are on the level of surviving in these communities, which is why I get so excited about education. It’s one of the ways out,” Pilachowski said.
De la Barra shares the same hope. “I’m very excited about the prospects of development on the east coast. Continued education at the university level is a huge issue for many people on the east coast, and I’m happy to see that it’s not only finally developing, but that people all over the world, including at Williams College, are helping out by donating resources such as books and helping to build the libraries and universities themselves.”
The group will make details about the book drop available to students soon, but currently de la Barra and Pilachowski are planning on having two book drops towards the end of the semester, one in Baxter Hall mailroom and one at Water St. Books. Textbooks, literature and books in Spanish are all welcome. Children’s books are also welcome as they are useful in teaching English to children and adults with little or no knowledge of English.