In February, 2012, Jodie Godwin, her 12-year-old daughter Leah and I had the opportunity to visit Jamaica.
The purpose of the trip was to meet the families of the men who worked on farms in our neighbourhood back home. It had been a whirlwind tour, and after 10 days we arrived in the parish of St. Mary.
Slightly disoriented after a dizzying day of traveling on winding country roads, we climbed the rocky driveway to the church manse.
Stepping into the front hall, I was greeted by a glorious sight — cue the angelic choir and beams of light — a stack of peach masters imprinted with the very familiar Epp Farm logo. It was both a comfort and a curiosity to be welcomed by this unexpected, but familiar product so very far from home.
Rev. Alice Blair explained that Abe Epp had used the boxes to ship books to her church to distribute to the primary school across the road.
Epp began hiring men from Jamaica to work on his modest peach farm in the mid-1960s. Starting with four men, his work force grew as each year his operations expanded, to eventually become one of the largest peach farms in Canada. Some of the friendships forged with crew members in the early days continued on throughout the years.
One of those men was Uton Bell, who Mr. Epp had first visited in Bell’s home town of Ginger Ridge back in 1969.
In 2009, Epp asked for Bell’s help in arranging a tour for friends and relatives who had stopped over in Jamaica while on a cruise. Travelling in a 10-passenger van on those treacherous mountain roads was not for the faint of heart. When the van reached Garden Hill School, high up in Juan Del Bolas district, the group was invited in for a tour.
Niagara residents Margie Enns, a supply teacher, and Marg Heinrichs, a librarian with the Lincoln County board of Education, struck up a conversation with principal, Marva Rhule, asking what the rural school’s most pressing need was.
“Books!” was the emphatic response.
Upon returning home, Enns and Heinrichs enthusiastically began scouring yard sales, and book sales at the local libraries. Epp offered to take care of the shipping costs, and the project took off.
This past March, I was in Jamaica and had the opportunity to meet with Marva Rhule and her husband Elkanah, both former principals at Garden Hill School when the book project was launched.
They bubbled over with enthusiasm as they recalled the joy of receiving the first shipment. Students and their parents would come in an hour before school started to get some reading time in before classes. For the first time, they could also select books to borrow and take home. Interest in improving their own literacy grew quickly among the parents, and reading together as a family became a cherished activity in many of the homes.
Within the first year, the students at Garden Hill achieved the national literacy level, an accomplishment they accredit to the books stimulating their passion for reading.
The project became an annual event. Every August, after the books were collected, Epp and his employees prepared them at his farm for shipping.
Eight years ago, a member of the Niagara-on-the-Lake library board, Dave Hunter, who is currently vice-chair, expanded the project to collect books from seven Niagara Region libraries.
“It wasn’t until I watched the interview (with Marva and Elkanah Rhule) that all of a sudden the project really came alive. I mean we have not only raised literacy levels, we have actually helped young people toward careers that take them beyond their rural villages,” says Hunter.
Betty Knight, another member of the NOTL Public Library board, has also joined. She has years of experience in education projects in developing nations, and is also responsible for sorting the books and choosing the ones best suited for different levels.
This year, books will be shipped to two schools: Garden Hill, and, for the first time, the Pringle Home For Children in St. Mary. They are excited to be partnering with Rachel Pellett, the assistant director at Pringle Home, who is also passionate about literacy. Pellett worked with MCC ( Mennonite Central Committee ) in Niagara in 2013 and 2014 as a community engagement intern, creating connections between local churches and the Caribbean workers.
Last Monday, we gathered at the Epp farm to wrap and sign off on the books loaded for transport.
As Garfield Martin carefully maneuvered the pallet on the tow motor into the shipping van, Epp came over to me, waving a sizable stack of letters. They were all hand-written by children who appreciated the books he had sent over the years. On one occasion, he was even invited to a graduation ceremony at one of the schools, an invitation he gratefully accepted.
“These letters are treasures,” he says, his face lighting up as he recalled the faces of the children in the photographs, forever impressed in his memory.
This year marks 10 years of support for the book project, and Epp is retiring after his many years of enthusiastic service.
Thank you Mr. Epp for your dedication to this worthwhile project, bringing hope and a passion for literacy to these rural schools.
The group hopes that participation by more libraries in Niagara will build on this success and increase the support for rural schools and libraries in Jamaica.
For more information, or if you would like to be involved, please contact Betty Knight at Bettyinnotl@gmail.com.