Mind Meals on Wheels

Hawai‘i Literacy’s traveling library delivers books to children and families on the Wai‘anae coast.

Tamara Martinez sits at a table, her mind and her mouth racing as she talks about everything she wishes she could do for the Wai‘anae coast. Martinez took a part-time position with Hawai‘i Literacy this past January, driving a bookmobile to the Boys and Girls Clubs and housing projects on Oahu’s west side.

Kids at Kau‘iokalani enjoy time on the bookmobile, where they borrow books and spend time with “Aunty” Tamara (back row, right). photo: Jimmy Forrest

The bus donated by members of the Rotary Club of Honolulu Sunset, is something of a celebrity in Wai‘anae, as it serves as a traveling library to dozens of children and adults. Every Wednesday, Martinez drives the aging bus among three housing projects: Maililand, Kau‘iokalani and ‘Ohana Ola.

Shelves line the inside of the bus, stocked with The Bernstein Bears, encyclopedias and picture books. Kids sit at the two desks in the back, racing to see who can create the most word combinations off the Boggle board.

“The bookmobile is really relevant for the housing projects,” Martinez says. “The projects are kind of isolated and sometimes parents don’t have transportation [to travel to Wai‘anae’s public library].” Martinez spends the bulk of her time at the three housing sites, as there’s less structure than the program at the Boys and Girls Clubs.

Pulling from her background in literature from the University of California Berkeley and work experience at a multicultural women’s press in San Francisco, Martinez fits right in with the program. “The main purpose is to bring books to the children, but it’s a work in progress,” she says, noting how her job has evolved over time. “I’m not there to tutor the kids, but they look to me as the go-to person.” During the hour-and-a-half to two hours devoted to each site, the kids check books in and out and participate in various literacy activities. “We do crossword puzzles and word searches—different things that will help stimulate them,” she says.

“I try to get them to be proud of what they do with me,” Martinez says, motioning to the worksheets and coloring pages posted on the walls and ceiling of the bus interior, with kids’ names scrawled in bright crayon.

The program is widely embraced, says Delores Agbayani, a resident of Maililand. She visits the traveling library with her grandson Hunter to borrow cookbooks and encyclopedias. “He gets excited when the bookmobile comes,” she says.

“When they’re waiting for me, books in hand in the hot sun, I feel like I’m doing something right. Once I’m there, it’s hard to extract myself,” Martinez says, noting how her scheduled seven-hour day generally lasts a lot longer. “There are times when they don’t want to get off the bus.”

Martinez has big plans for the literacy project, from incorporating lessons on native plants to providing additional tutoring and activities. “I can’t deviate too much from what I’m supposed to be doing,” she says, right before listing several ideas to expand the program in the same breath. In the meantime, it’s expanding on its own, with ‘Ohana Ola as a new addition, and a growing number of patrons at each site.

First on her to-do list is repairing the bookmobile, which has a rusted windshield, a faulty AC system and a broken gas gauge. “You want to bring the best to them. I wish we had better things to offer,” Martinez says, worried that a broken bus will end the program. “But the kids love it and don’t even notice.”

As it nears 3 p.m.—an hour behind schedule—the program’s importance is obvious. Several kids climb up and down the bus stairs, vying for Martinez’s attention, as she ushers off stragglers. But she’s late for her next site—looks like another late night of reading in Wai‘anae.

For more information on charities in Hawai‘i, contact the Hawai‘i Community Foundation, a statewide grant-making organization supported by generous individuals, families and businesses to benefit Hawai‘i’s people. Visit its site at www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org.