Woman helps Venezuela school bloom

Posted: Friday, August 16, 2002

For Juneau's Lindsey Bloom, who started a school in rural Venezuela last winter, necessity was truly the mother of invention.

"We didn't have paper or pencils or crayons," Bloom, 22, said. "All we had to work with was a room and some white chalk, so we had to get creative."

She and her students - who numbered about 80 - used the objects they found around them. Cardboard boxes "were a dream down there," Bloom said. In the eager hands of her students, they were cut up and transformed into items from books to Valentines.

"I lived on an organic fruit farm, so I brought down a big bag of tangerines and we'd do math with tangerines. All kinds of stuff," Bloom said.

Bloom, a 2001 graduate from Whitman College in Washington state, traveled to Venezuela as a volunteer with the Jewish Volunteer Corps, a branch of the American Jewish World Service, an independent nonprofit group that sponsors service missions around the world.

"At the time she was a very young volunteer, but based on her academic and personal history, she automatically stood out as someone who would be very flexible in the field, someone who had great language skills," said Adriana Ermoli, program officer with AJWS. "Once she's outlined a problem, she will roll up her sleeves and tackle it."

In Venezuela, Bloom checked in with the Turimiquire Foundation, a Venezuelan nonprofit group with two branches, one focusing on urban public health issues and one dealing with educational and environmental projects. She was assigned to the second, which is based on a farm in the Venezuelan jungle.

During her first weekend in the area, Bloom walked past an empty schoolhouse. Curious, she made inquiries and learned the school had been closed for some time. About 200 families lived in the valley, she said.

"I sort of got interested in that, and next Monday, I was down there teaching classes to (about) 40 kids," Bloom said. "They just kept pouring in and pouring in."

Many of the children's parents were farmers struggling with a declining economy and land devastated by slash-and-burn agricultural tactics, and they were thrilled by the prospect of learning, Bloom said.

"People were really acutely aware that the kids needed to learn how to read and write to have other options available to them" Bloom said. "Kids would get up at 4 a.m. and walk from two-and-a-half hours away to get to the schoolhouse. They were just incredibly eager."

Keeping the school open after she left became an immediate priority, Bloom said. She began training three other teachers, and spent long hours trying to convince the state of Sucre's branch of the national Ministry of Education of the importance of funding her school.

"That basically involved many days of standing in long lines and banging my head against the wall," Bloom said. "Venezuela's a really complicated system, and it's the kind of system where you have to know someone who knows someone. We would walk into these government offices and people would look at me, a gringa (foreigner), and not let me in."

Bloom kept at it, and eventually managed to meet with Henry Gomez, director of education for Sucre, the Venezuelan state where she was working. She invited Gomez and several other local dignitaries to a school open house during her last week in the country. To her surprise, they attended.

"He (Gomez) actually hiked the two hours up from the road ... to get to where the school was," Bloom said. "It was really cool when he got up in front of the whole community and said he was going to finance three teachers for our school."

Bloom, who came back to Juneau in March, will return to Venezuela in January 2003 to do more work with the Turimiquire Foundation. This time, they hope to open a community center, Bloom said.

Genevieve Gagne-Hawes can be reached at geneviev@juneauempire.com.

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