As a high school library media specialist in Wisconsin, Susy Siel made a positive impact on countless students in her near 30-year career. It is at Kenosha Unified School District where Follett School Solutions was introduced to her. After many years working together, it came as little surprise that she wasn’t slowing down following her retirement six years ago.

Siel developed a love for The Bahamas as a youth where she enjoyed annual visits with her family. She even took a leave of absence from Kenosha USD in 2005 to help schools and students on Eleuthera Island, a long, thin island in the Bahamas archipelago. It was then a natural progression for her when she founded Freedom to Read, Inc., a non-profit, grassroots organization in The Bahamas with the admirable slogan of “Changing Lives One Book at a Time.”

The goal of the volunteer work is to increase literacy rates in the poverty-stricken areas of Family Islands of The Bahamas by providing free access to books in local libraries. In addition to improved literacy rates, Freedom to Read, Inc. has worked to build and/or renovate 12 library sites, increased job skills, trained local library attendants to circulate materials, and provided library services in small communities and settlements.

Follett School Solutions jumped on board early and initially sent countless shipments of books to help her fill the libraries. That effort grew dramatically when Follett suggested to Siel that she set up all her libraries as a system and offered to equip her with computers and free access to Follett Destiny Library Manager, which has been and continues to be the leading K-12 library management system. In addition to thousands of books and the Destiny online catalog, Follett also has donated laptops, barcode scanners and barcode labels for each of the libraries, plus spine labels and label protectors, and provides technology support.

“We have now cataloged 10 of our 12 library sites,” Siel said. “We can analyze our collections and make decisions about collection management. Library supervisors can circulate materials and patrons can locate and access books through our Destiny. It has launched our library spaces into the 21st century, to be sure.”

She said the children are responding incredibly as their curiosity is piqued and they’re pulling book after book off the shelves.

“That’s what we have in the United States but we haven’t had that on Eleuthera,” Siel said. “These students — and adults, too — wanted books, they just didn’t have access. Literacy expands beyond books, it’s a skillset. With it, you can pursue your dreams.”

In 2023, Siel is working with Follett and volunteers to open three new library sites in diverse sites on Eleuthera Island:

  1. The Children's Place Library on Spanish Wells (private school, grades 1-9)
  2. Emily G. Petty Primary School Library in Governor's Harbour (public school, grades K-5)
  3. Deep Creek Middle School Library (private school, grades 6-9)

“Bringing the libraries to each settlement is imperative because on-island transportation is limited and difficult,” she said. “For example, The Children’s Place Library is on a barrier island off the northern coast of Eleuthera where you must take a water taxi, then a golf cart to get to the school.”

Initially upon her retirement, Siel had been splitting her time between Wisconsin and The Bahamas but is now living full time on Eleuthera with the goal of providing even greater literacy services there.

“We now are literally impacting the entire island of Eleuthera,” she said. “If you don’t have a library in your settlement, you don’t have access to literacy where you live.”

Freedom to Read, Inc. manages collections, ships them to The Bahamas, sets up the libraries’ operations and trains and mentors local library attendants. While staffing the libraries continues to be a challenge due to inconsistent financial and cultural support in the communities, Siel and her organization have had the privilege to partner with like-minded businesses, such as Follett, and individuals to provide literacy services on Eleuthera.

“Our partnership with Follett is the reason we can make progress in literacy development… period!” Siel said. “This level of support has really made all that we do in literacy development possible. If I didn’t have Follett in my corner, we wouldn’t be able to make this work — we just wouldn’t.”

About Follett School Solutions

Follett School Solutions is the largest provider of educational materials and technology solutions to K-12 libraries, classrooms, learning centers and school districts in the United States, and a major supplier to educational institutions worldwide. Follett distributes books, reference materials, digital resources, ebooks and audiovisual materials. It also is one of the leading providers of integrated educational technology for the management of physical and digital assets, the tracking, storing and analyzing of academic data, and digital learning environment tools for the classroom focusing on student achievement. Find Follett on Facebook, and follow on Twitter(@FollettLearning).