Walnut Creek group has fostered literacy overseas since '80s

Walnut Creek group marks 40 years of promoting literacy in Philippines

Books for the Barrios has improved education for generations of young children in other regions too

In the Philippines’ Agusan del Sur province on the island of Mindanao, Manobo tribal students paddle three miles to a floating library run by Books for the Barrios, says Dan Harrington, one of the Walnut Creek nonprofit group’s co-founders. Four decades after he and Nancy Harrington founded Books for the Barrios, the group continues to improve the quality of education for generations of young children in underserved regions, with a special focus on schools in the Philippines.
photo courtesy of Nancy Harrington
In the Philippines’ Agusan del Sur province on the island of Mindanao, Manobo tribal students paddle three miles to a floating library run by Books for the Barrios, says Dan Harrington, one of the Walnut Creek nonprofit group’s co-founders. Four decades after he and Nancy Harrington founded Books for the Barrios, the group continues to improve the quality of education for generations of young children in underserved regions, with a special focus on schools in the Philippines.
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Four decades after a philanthropic flame was lit in the hearts of Walnut Creek couple Nancy and Dan Harrington, the light continues to shine. The all-volunteer nonprofit they founded in 1981, Books for the Barrios, has improved the quality of education for generations of young children in underserved regions, with a special focus on schools in the Philippines.

Launched by the Harringtons and U.S. Navy families stationed in the Philippines in 1981, the organization’s distinguishing feature is a coordinated program connecting American children who participate in the organization and donate thousands of books to their distant peers.

To date, Books for the Barrios (booksforthebarrios.org) has sent more than 16 million books overseas. Hundreds of children in East Bay schools have participated in field trips to pack books and other educational learning aids or have led fundraising events that pay for shipping.

As the program has expanded and the critical, urgent need for quality teachers became evident, the Harringtons implemented advanced training and curricula for educators through National Teacher Training conventions, gradually transforming what were 73 underdeveloped barrio (neighborhood) schools into International Model of Excellence Schools.

The nationwide education development program was commissioned formally by the Philippine Government in 2001, resulting in 1,500 Model of Excellence School classroom teachers who now provide rigorous, professional curriculum and practices. Nancy Harrington added that Books for the Barrios has a powerful environmental as well as educational purpose.

“Our program has diverted more than 300 tons of books from landfills each year,” she says.

Her husband said there are “three legs” upholding a basic education platform in countries in which a free education is not always guaranteed: access to books and educational materials; implementation of instruction by from age 5 to 10; and dictionaries.

“Books were like white elephants when we first shipped them to the Philippines because students couldn’t understand them and teachers didn’t know how to use them. Now, by shipping the teaching methodology along with the books, teachers know how to use them.”

With dictionaries — English is a second language there — students learn word definitions, pronunciation and application and new language that expands their vocabulary and understanding of the world, Dan Harrington said.

Nancy Harrington notes that “We do not send any books about American history, religion or books in languages other than English. Children in the Philippines need to learn their own history before they learn ours.”

The all-volunteer nonprofit Books for the Barrios that Walnut Creek couple Nancy and Dan Harrington founded in 1981 has improved the quality of education for generations of young children in underserved regions, with a special focus on schools in the Philippines. (photo courtesy of Nancy Harrington) 

She recalls visiting a classroom with the couple’s two sons during the six years the family lived in the country while her husband served as a pilot for the U.S. Navy.

“They were exactly like American school children, except the kids would have a blank notebook and a pencil but no books.”

Because there is often graft and corruption in the region, they found that many people in the country do not trust the sincerity of appeals for funds to support education. Undaunted, Nancy turned the call to American children and families, urging them to “think globally and act locally” to donate books. Importantly, Books for the Barrios has remained all-volunteer so that all funds raised from grants, foundations and individual supporters are used exclusively to ship the materials to the Philippines.

After operating out of their garage for years, a talk Dan Harrington gave at a local Rotary Club chapter resulted in an audience member standing up and offering the use of a warehouse in Concord for storing and packing the books.

“We shipped a container that weighed 58,000 pounds every month,” he recalls. “We used apple boxes, and when the containers arrived in the Philippines, they separated the books and made kits for each school. (In a process that continues today) the criteria is to put kits in the neediest schools, document it and make sure they are using them, not just storing them.”

A team of local volunteers on the ground works with the county’s department of education to make sure the resources reach their destinations and are used. Dan Harrington said people have continued to drop off books during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s no real change in protocol. At the other end, the teachers have set up a system where children can pick up the materials.”

Despite having statistics and anecdotal evidence suggesting Books for the Barrios has raised the prospects of hundreds of children in the country, Nancy Harrington says fundraising remains a terrific challenge.

“That has always been the case over there,” she said. “The community has always loved that this American company wants to do this, but there is corruption. Here, when we apply for grants, people do appreciate that all the money goes for shipping, not staff salaries. Foundations were amazed by us.”

She says the effort has been “a providential calling” from the beginning and that serendipitous giving occurs remarkably often. One day, it was a neighbor who had four children and is moving and donates art and office supplies, children’s books and reference books.

“And she gave us $500, just like that,” she said. “She came back three weeks later and gave $500 more.”

There are emails and Facebook posts from adults who participated in the packing field trips as children and express gratitude for the opportunity to give. Most special are messages received from young adults in the Philippines who are now working in professional fields — nurses, doctors, teachers, government officials — instead of remaining illiterate and living in deep poverty as farmers, fish workers or field and domestic workers.

“They didn’t have to drop out of school at age 10 and be where they are defenseless and subject to abuse in every way,” said Dan Harrington.

The nonprofit’s immediate activities, among others, include maintaining leadership and management of the 73 Excellent Schools sites, continuing to enlist American teachers and students in what they say is “a public service peace initiative” and launching a major campaign to raise funds to establish a school library for Muslim children living in poverty in the southern Philippine city of Jolo.

The library will be dedicated to U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Joseph Curreri, a man who served and died in the nation’s confict-filled Mindanao region and whose passion for reading and children will live on with the legacy library. Curreri’s mother, according to Nancy, phoned and offered an initial $500 donation, sharing stories of how her son had often requested packages of flip-flops and books be sent for children whom he said had no shoes or reading materials.

Asked about the most powerful literature and philanthropic models they themselves encountered as children, Dan Harrington says most influential was a childhood lived primarily in the Jim Crow South and his parents always reminding him that “there are inequities and crimes against people in the United States, and you should do something to raise the downtrodden.”

Nancy’s imagination was fired by issue of National Geographic Magazine that she says “got me wondering about the world.” But the internal flame that continues to burn in her heart was first and forever lit by traveling at the age of 24 to the Philippines and encountering students whose eager minds were primed to learn, except for the lack of books to learn from and teachers to show them how.

Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at lou@johnsonandfancher.com.