When a community leader in an Indonesian village asked islander Marcy Summers to provide children’s books to the primary school where he taught, she thought it would be a simple project.
Summers, who heads a small nonprofit that does conservation work in Indonesia, decided to look for the best books she could find in Indonesian, order several copies and take them to the village. What’s more, the request fit her organization’s mission. The Alliance for Tompotika Conservation, or AlTo, is committed to providing what Summers calls “community benefits” as a thank you to the villages where it works. Books, especially ones that celebrate nature, fit the bill perfectly, she thought.
But there was a hitch: It turned out the only children’s books in Bahasa Indonesia, the national language, are government-issued morality stories or cheap Disney knock-offs. Summers and her board wanted something else: They wanted books that would enrich the lives of children, would help them grow into readers and would utterly delight them.
Thus began an ambitious campaign that engaged several islanders as well as supporters from other parts of the country. Helping in the project were Rayna Holtz, an AlTo board member and former Vashon librarian, who worked with Summers to select 32 titles; Oi Durahim, an Indonesian man who lives on Vashon and aided in translation; the Vashon Bookshop, which offered the books at a discount; and several islanders who contributed funds to the cause.
Earlier this year, Summers delivered 90 books to Tanah Merah, a village at the base Mount Tompotika in Sulawesi where AlTo is working to protect a vast but threatened rainforest. She watched the eyes of the children widen as they fingered colorful books they’d never seen before — “The Great Kapok Tree,” “The Lorax,” “Frog and Toad,” “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” — each page translated into Bahasa Indonesia.
This fall, she’ll bring another 60 books to the village. And on Aug. 23, when AlTo celebrates its 10th anniversary at the Vashon Theater, the book project is one of the initiatives Summers and her board will highlight — an effort, she and Holtz say, that is already enriching the lives of children.
“No matter what they go into, no matter what they do in life, the children in Tanah Merah are going to look at things differently because of these books,” Summers said. “The books will be with them the rest of their lives.”
Holtz called the project “the most obvious thing in the world” for AlTo to undertake. She, Summers and another librarian from California chose titles that celebrate not only nature, but connection, community and cross-cultural understanding. In that way, Holtz said, she believes the books “will strengthen both humanitarian and conservation values” in Tanah Merah.
“It was also great fun,” she said of the project.
AlTo is a small nonprofit working to protect a corner of the world that is both ecologically rich and greatly imperiled. The bi-national organization — with a U.S board comprised mostly of islanders and another board in Indonesia — has focused its work over the past decade on the Tompotika Peninsula on Sulawesi, a rugged island in the middle of the archipelago.
Summers founded the organization to help conserve the threatened maleo, a chicken-sized bird that incubates its eggs in the warm Indonesian sand. Over the years, AlTo has added new projects. It now works to protect sea turtles, whose nests are often raided by poachers, and several species of bats, whose populations have been decimated by trade in bushmeat. It is helping to protect native forests in Tompotika, forests that harbor tiny primates called tarsiers, dwarf buffaloes called anoas and the prehistoric-looking babirusa, also called a pig-deer. Many of these animals are found nowhere else in the world, making Sulawesi what biologists call an ecological hotspot.
All along, Summers, her Indonesian staff and her board have worked closely with people who live in the villages that dot the Tompotika Peninsula — helping to strengthen their conservation ethic in the face of mounting pressures on the region’s resources. Forests, in particular, are threatened in Sulawesi; many are being burned to make way for palm oil plantations or logged to make way for nickel mining.
The organization has undertaken art projects that celebrate nature. It works in village schools, stressing the connection between the fruit many Tompotikans love and the fruit bats that pollinate them. And each year, it offers community benefits to the residents — reading glasses for elderly people, a waste incinerator, clean water projects and now children’s books.
Tanah Merah, a gateway to Mount Tompotika, is a village Summers knows well — she’s been going there for 10 years and has watched the children grow up. The idea for a children’s library came from Adolof Raja, a community leader and teacher at the small primary school, who a year ago appealed to Summers.
“Our children have no books,” he told her. “They learn to read from government-issued texts. After that, they have nothing, neither at school nor at home.”
So after a fundraising campaign, AlTo purchased five copies of 32 different titles, recruited people to translate and printed cards with the Indonesian text, adhering them flap-like over each page of English text so students could read the books in both languages.
Summers, who’s fluent in Bahasa Indonesia, did some of the translations. Durahim took on a tough one, “The Lorax.” Even her daughter, Clara, who was in Indonesia on a Fulbright Scholarship last year, helped. Part of her Fulbright was to do a service project, so Clara — who was teaching at a high school in East Java — got the Fulbright Program to donate enough money to purchase about 20 titles, six of which she and her
Indonesian students translated.
The project is not over. Summers, Holtz and the librarian in California have selected 15 more titles to add to the library. AlTo staff is now looking for other schools where an inspired teacher will help with the project. Part of the success in Tanah Merah, Summers says, is the deep commitment of Raja, who now provides a daily reading time for his students.
Meanwhile, she’s looking forward to going back in October, with another 60 books in tow.
“The travel is hard and this work is hard. But doing projects like this, being with the kids and seeing what a difference it makes — that makes it all worthwhile,” she said. “It’s pure delight. It’s the stuff that feeds me.”
Celebrate AlTo’s 10th year with two short films and birthday cake at the Vashon Theatre.
6 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 23