Jose Alberto Gutierrez, a garbage man in Bogotá, Colombia, turns trashed books into treasure for the children in his community. For the past 20 years, Gutierrez has collected discarded books in the trash of the wealthier neighborhoods in Bogotá. He takes these books to his home in southern Bogotá, where he turned the first floor of his home into a free community library called The Strength of Words.
Gutierrez’s family could not afford for him to remain in school beyond primary. However, Gutierrez said his mother would still read to him every night and he credits her with his appreciation for books. So when he found a copy of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, the idea sparked. He began taking 50 to 60 books home with him each day on the job.
The Strength of Words now holds more than 20,000 books, all of which were found in the trash. Before the library, the children in his neighborhood didn’t have easy access to reading material. Now, they have unlimited access to books that can help them with their schoolwork and fulfil their other interests. Either way, The Strength of Words has made it easier for the children in his community to learn.
The library is not just for school children. Adults also have access to the wide variety of texts. They can use the books to learn skills they otherwise did not have, which can help them get jobs or advance in those they already have. Gutierrez also provides books for Colombia’s peace process after being contacted by a fighter from the FARC rebel group, who wanted books to help transition fighters back into civilian life and prepare them for jobs.
No longer able to contain the whole collection in his home, Gutierrez distributes books to other poor and remote towns throughout Colombia. He believes that there should be multiple libraries in every neighborhood in all towns, cities and rural areas. And he is making strides to see his dream become a reality.
The success of The Strengths of Words is an inspiring story of how one man recognized a need in his community and sought to fix it. Because of Gutierrez, many children and adults now have easy access to educational reading materials in their own neighborhoods.
– Hannah Kaiser