Help to grow Vrygrond’s literacy beacon

Librarian Jane Sylvester and library assistant Chenylle Landrew at the Vrygrond Community Reading Centre (known as the Vrygrond library).

Vrygrond is one of the toughest neighbourhoods in Cape Town, but its children have a place where they can escape from crime, poverty and other social ills by opening a book.

The library near the entrance to the neighbourhood was started 18 years ago as a project of the Vrygrond Community Development Trust.

Formally known as the Vrygrond Community Reading Centre – a registered non-profit with an executive committee of Vrygrond residents – it’s a refuge not only for children but for people of all ages and doubles as a venue for community meetings and activities.

But it plays a special role in the lives of Vrygrond’s children, because it’s here that many of them will be exposed to books and the joy of reading for the first time.

In December 2006 the library was awarded the Library & Information Association of SA (LIASA) prize as the best community library in the Western Cape, and today it has more than 2 000 children registered as members, according to Jonathan Schrire, who helped to get the trust off the ground.

“That is 5% of the total population of Vrygrond.

There are few libraries anywhere in SA that have a penetration as large as this.

So, small as it is, the work done by the library is an important element in fostering a love of words among the community’s children.”

Others who have supported the library over the years, include Marina da Gama resident Sharon McCallum, Tony van Ryneveld and his late wife, Lil, church groups and Rustenburg High School girls who visit regularly and read with the children.

“Initially our trust was formed to rehouse the community, and we built 1 600 brick houses to replace the tin-and-board shacks,” says Mr Schrire.

“Since then, we focused on education, and now have kids in a preschool and Capricorn Primary School.

“The library is a natural extension of what we do – teaching a love of books and reading to children who grow up without ever seeing a book at home, or being read to.”

Jane Sylvester has worked as librarian here for 17 years and has watched children who first joined when they were 5 grow up – the library’s influence on their lives clearly evident.

“These children learned to love reading, that gave them the edge when it came to school work and now they are doing wonderful things.”

Among them she counts two chefs, a teacher and one who is an exco member of the Vrygrond Trust.

Ms McCallum tells another success story – of a young man, now 26, who was on drugs and by the age of 18 had been to prison; who was encouraged to volunteer at the library when he got out, and has since gone on to become a role model of recovery to the youngsters of his community.

“While they may not listen to us, they do listen to him,” she says.

However with changing circumstances, the trust now needs the library to fund itself.

Ms McCallum says she felt compelled to help the library after seeing the need in the community, and she is urging the public to come to the library’s aid now that it needs to find its own funding.

The library isn’t computerised and needs R200 000 a year to keep going. It has the support of several individuals and a church outreach programme, but more is needed.

“We already won’t have salaries for staff at the end of May,” Ms McCallum says.

“We all know that children who learn to love reading from an early age are likely to do well at school; but above all, in reading we become bigger than we have been,” she says.

“Cape Flats writers like Rehana Rossouw and Jonathan Jansen have enthused about how they found inspiration and opportunity in libraries to read, to study, to think. It is a really worthwhile facility for the area, helping to counter the ills of drugs and crime.”

Library assistant Chenylle Landrew and Ms Sylvester tell how the library is a vital refuge from the poverty, crime and other problems that some of its tiniest patrons face daily.

“We become their second mothers here. We ‘skell’ them and tell them to do homework and get the older ones to volunteer so they are off the street and learning something that will benefit them. We make a difference. And we want to keep on making a difference,” Ms Slyvester says.

If you can help or for more information, contact Ms Sylvester on 021 701 3701 or on email sylsterjane@gmail.com or phone Ms McCallum at 084 507 5092.