Scripps Ranch Books Help Kids on Faraway Island

A year and a half ago, I took an offbeat cruise that made a stop at Fanning Island, one of the islands making up the relatively new country of Kiribati. It’s located in the South Pacific, near the equator and is about 1,165 miles southwest of Honolulu. Sixty years ago it was a part of the Gilbert Islands, and the natives spoke a Polynesian dialect. While that’s still true today, the children start learning English in the 3rd grade, and they and their parents are reasonably proficient in it.

It is a small island with only 2,200 inhabitants, 245 of which are elementary school-age children. There is no running water or electricity and, therefore, no phones or TV. There is also no doctor, but there is a nurse practitioner to take care of medical needs. If the medical problem is outside her capability, a several-hundred-mile ocean voyage to Christmas Island is required. There is a doctor there along with an airstrip from which medical evacuation to Hawaii could be arranged if necessary.

The islanders cut sluiceways to empty some of their waste water into the lagoon, and there is a reef around the lagoon and the island. They also cut two holes in the reef, 180 degrees apart, so when the tide comes in twice a day, it flushes the lagoon clean so swimming is safe.

The lagoon is quite shallow so no cruise ships can enter. Since there isn’t much to do on the island beyond meeting and talking to the people, a cruise ship only stops there once every two years. It anchors beyond the reef and uses tenders to take people ashore to visit and hike. There are no museums or libraries and only one small store that sells primarily to the islanders.

When you go ashore, there are three things immediately apparent in this somewhat primitive society. The first is how absolutely happy the people are. Second, the children, who all attend a three-building grammar school, seem to be quite smart and polite and are eager to talk to visitors and ask good questions. The third is that there are absolutely no books on the island for the children to read—none!

To help bring books to the island, I got the name of a missionary in Hawaii who comes to Fanning Island about once a month to take care of the spiritual needs of the natives and I contacted him. I told him we have a Book Nook at the Scripps Ranch Library and used children’s books could be purchased and sent if he had any idea how to get them to the island. He thought about it but concluded that it would be difficult, if not impossible.

A cargo ship comes to the island once a month and delivers what the people order. They only grow bananas, coconuts, mangos, and pigs. Of course, they can fish but everything else has to come in on the monthly boat trip. Renting a space on the ship to bring in books is prohibitively expensive. Even the every-other-year cruise ship could not bring the books because its charters don’t allow it to carry cargo. So we gave up—until five months ago!

That’s when I heard from the missionary. He had determined that Holland America Cruise Line’s ship Statendam was leaving Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in early February 2014, coming through the Panama Canal, and stopping in San Diego. From there it was heading to Hawaii and then going to Fanning. If we could get some passengers to take and deliver the children’s books, we could get it done.

Holland America cooperated and gave us the email addresses of some of the passengers. If we got “book carriers” to bring the books, when they got to the ship, crew members would take the books and store them in a room behind the front desk. This was a big help since the passengers wouldn’t have to figure out where to put the books in their staterooms. When the ship got to Fanning, the crew would bring them down and put them on the tenders.

We got some responses and people gave us the number of pounds of books they could handle. The Scripps Ranch Library was in on the project and set up a bookcase in the seminar room where they put children’s books. As we started to know what we needed, I was able to go in, pick out the books we wanted, and buy them in the Book Nook. One of the “carriers” called and offered to meet me in a local mall parking lot to make the transfer. He also would take the books to the other “carriers.” And that is what we did.

In mid-March I received an email from one of the “carriers” on the Statendam, anchored off Fanning Island. Since a cruise ship only comes every two years, it is a big day on Fanning—and it’s a holiday. The school is closed and the children and their teachers come down to the small landing where the tenders unload. When they did that this time, off came the boxes and tote bags of books. The man who sent me the email said it was the highlight of the trip!

Nobody on Fanning knew we were bringing books, and when the kids saw them they were so excited. It was like Christmas morning! The teachers and the parents were ecstatic because here was something very valuable and unexpected, and they couldn’t believe that the Americans would do that for their children. They didn’t even know Americans knew there was a need! And so we left all the people on Fanning Island very grateful.

Here’s a footnote to the story: I just received word that Holland America was so impressed with the reaction to the books that they are returning to Fanning this October—instead of in two years—and wouldn’t mind if we brought more books!

George Roos, Scripps Ranch Resident

[Editor’s note: Grace’s Book Nook in the Scripps Ranch Library is named after George’s first wife, who passed away in 2007. Grace was instrumental in making the Book Nook a very successful fundraiser for the library through the Scripps Ranch Friends of the Library.]