When St. John’s graduate student Anna Guyadeen-Jadonath prepared to fly home for a visit to her beloved Barbados in February, she packed items typically not earmarked for a tropical vacation: 500 children’s books, jammed inside two huge suitcases.
The books were not destined for relaxed beach reading. Anna amassed them as part of Books for Barbados, a one-woman initiative she mounted in just a few days in response to a critical shortage of books experienced at public primary schools on the island.
“I learned about this desperate need for books just one week before my trip home. So, I had to do something fast,” said Anna, a native Barbadian who will earn a Master of Science degree in Data Science this year from the College of Professional Studies.
“Growing up in Barbados, my childhood was priceless because of two important pillars in my life—my love for that beautiful island and my profound respect for books,” Anna said. “Books for Barbados started when my best friend from there brought this shortfall of books to my attention.”
She quickly recruited a few other friends on the island to visit some of the schools to gauge the extent of the shortage. “Some of the school officials told my friends they did not even have libraries and that the students who attended those schools also did not have any books in their households,” Anna recalled.
The next day, Anna reached out to her supervisors at her graduate assistant job at St. John’s, where she works as Communications Assistant for the Office of Advancement and the Office of Alumni Relations. “They generously responded by emailing their department staff, asking for donations of children’s books,” Anna said. “Over the next couple of days, books were piling high on my desk.”
Anna also sought donations from one of her favorite places to study, the Manhasset Public Library in Manhasset, NY. “They also enthusiastically responded and, in a couple of days, the library and St. John’s collected hundreds of books, many of them related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), as well as some puzzles and reading games,” she said.
In explaining the book shortage, Anna said, “Because it is an island, Barbados needs to import many products, including books, and the tariffs that are issued for the imported books often deter Barbadians from trying to obtain them.”
Soon after her arrival in Barbados, Anna met with a representative of the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) for the Blackman and Gollop Primary School, which had no established library. They devised a plan to reach out to the heads of all 124 PTAs on the island to assess the literary needs of the primary schools.
“Additionally, I met with government representatives who steered me in the right direction in solidifying an ongoing book donation program,” Anna said. “The donation program will now work to ensure that each public school has a library for its students.”
“Anna is an outstanding example of how our students at St. John’s carry out the University’s Vincentian mission of helping others,” said Christian P. Vaupel, Ed.D., Vice President for Advancement and University Relations. “Her work through Books for Barbados perfectly demonstrates the values taught at St. John’s and by bringing inspiration and hope to those in need, Anna is Vincentian.”
The goal to create more libraries in Barbados is deeply important to Anna. While growing up, she had easy access to books because the private Catholic school she attended for her elementary and high school education housed a library that was filled with books and other reading materials for students to use. At that time, books were often the only source of entertainment available to many. “In Barbados back then, there was just one television channel, and it only broadcast classified ads, Sesame Street, and an American soap opera,” she said.
Books also inspired Anna to spread her wings and explore the world. “Reading lots of different kinds of books helped me to understand that there was much to be discovered and experienced beyond what was right in front of me in Barbados.”
In 2003, she emigrated to the United States to pursue a Bachelor of Science degree in Legal Studies from Barry University, in Miami, FL. During her time there, Anna, who is of Indian descent, established the ASHA Foundation, borrowing the Hindi word for “hope” to name her grassroots initiative to help the homeless in Orlando. She also worked in New York City at the United Nations as a consultant to immigrant women of color who want to become entrepreneurs. At one point, she was invited to the White House during the Obama administration as part of a gathering of students and Hindu religious and cultural leaders to share her experiences of being a female, non-profit entrepreneur with immigrant roots.
“I was in my twenties then, and my talk focused on how young people, if they perceive a particular need in their community, can start facilitating and filling that need,” Anna said.
Now Anna is about to take the next step to further expand Books for Barbados. Later this summer, she will return to her home country to meet with officials of the Ministry of Education and other PTA representatives to streamline the logistics of routing more books that will be used to establish libraries at the primary schools.
“I am not going to fizzle out. This is not a one-time enterprise for me,” Anna vowed. For inspiration, she carries with her a memory from her first trip to bring books to Barbados. In addition to delivering the books to the Blackman and Gollop Primary School, Anna and other volunteers gathered children from four classrooms together so they could read stories aloud to them.
“We wanted to do this so that we could evoke the joy and value of storytelling and using your imagination,” said Anna. “Afterward, a bunch of kids who were only five and six years old ran up to me, and they were very excited. They said, ‘Thank you so much for the books!’”
“That,” she added, “means everything to me.”