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June 13, 2022

By Emma Johnson, Communications Manager

When Spanish classes began at Ethical Culture nearly 20 years ago, parent and photographer Hilary Leff contacted the School with an idea. Leff explained that she worked with an organization of pediatric surgeons called HeartCare that traveled to Central America to provide medical services to underserved communities. Leff was looking for an impactful way to serve the many children she encountered along the way.

While brainstorming the ways that Ethical Culture students could make a contribution, Leff mentioned that many of the communities that she visited with HeartCare did not have a library or reliable access to children’s books. In response, Spanish teacher Joan Singer, who was in her first year at Ethical Culture at the time, helped to conceive the beloved 5th Grade Spanish Book Project. The project requires students to create handwritten — in Spanish, of course — and illustrated children’s books.

In the 20 years since, Singer has grown the program to include 4th Graders and has worked with her students to send books to children in many countries, including El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. “The project started out as just simple hole-punched papers, but now the books are actually bound and have hardcovers,” explains Singer. “It has really come a long way.”

After a few years, Leff was no longer traveling with HeartCare, and Singer was looking for another community that she and her students could serve. With the help of experienced community organizer Salina Duncan, Singer and her students at Ethical Culture partnered with Las Manos de Christine, a group that runs a school and programs for children in the village of El Hato, near Antigua, Guatemala. Once the books were ready to go, Singer would send the books to Duncan, who would bring them to the school in El Hato when she arrived to work there each summer.

Every spring, before students jump into writing and illustrating, Singer first introduces the students to the communities they will be helping. They develop a deeper understanding of the needs of that specific community and how this project will help other children. For 4th Graders, the Spanish Book Project coincides with their Social Studies immigration study. “I love everything about the project, but I especially love that the students ‘get it,’” says Singer. “They know that they are involved in the act of giving.”

Students also understand that they can serve communities and children right here in New York City. One year, Singer, along with parent and board member Meghan Mackay, worked with Haven Academy — now Mott Haven Academy Charter School — in the Bronx which has a large population of children in the foster care system. Singer and Mackay had the opportunity to visit the school to hand-deliver the books. “There was a large Spanish-speaking population at the school, so the kids were very receptive to the books,” says Singer. “I had the pleasure of reading the books to the kids and it was beautiful to see their reactions of joy. One of the kids ran after me as I was leaving and said, ‘Tell your kids they did good!

The Book Project had to adapt once again when international travel was put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic. To ensure the project continued, Singer came up with yet another solution. This year, the books are now going to a group home in Baltimore, Maryland. Under the auspices of the Board of Child Care Caminos Project, the home will be temporarily caring for unaccompanied minors who are entering the United States. When the children arrive, they receive a welcome bag with a variety of items including one book written by an Ethical Culture student. The bag and book will go with them when they leave for their sponsor family.

On a recent visit to Singer’s classroom, students were putting the finishing touches on this year’s books. Students have taken to heart that their book should be a welcoming one, and the subjects vary from educational — introduction to American foods, cities, and monuments — to inspirational stories of hope.

One student, Santi C. ’29, researched the different points of interest in Baltimore so that the child who received his book would feel more at home in their new city. Another student, Pommo B. ’30, wrote on the last page, “¿Quieres ser mi amigo? Which in English means, ‘Will you be my friend?’”

Singer explains that she has seen her students go above and beyond this year. “They understand that the children receiving the books are in the direst of circumstances, having been likely separated from their families. It has been very touching to witness, and at times has brought me to tears.”