Minneapolis educator plans yearlong trip to teach reading in Puerto Rico

- When it comes to her love of reading, the young people she inspires and her love for Puerto Rico, Soraya Valedon Lopez is an open book.

After 10 years of teaching elementary school students through Minneapolis Public Schools’ dual development language program, Valedon Lopez decided to spend her winter break this year on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.

She grew up near San Juan in the municipality of Guaynabo, where she says her family is doing well, all things considered, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. 

Yet, what struck her most about her recent visit is the extreme lack of resources in Vieques where 1,600 children between the ages of two and 12 currently live.

Located eight miles from the east coast of the main island, Vieques is one of the poorest municipalities in Puerto Rico, with one of the lowest education levels. 

Vieques is also only reached by a brief but costly plane ride, boat, or an unreliable ferry.

“It’s even worse [than in other parts of Puerto Rico] because for transportation, getting people out and in, it’s a hard place to live," Valedon Lopez said. "Some people were saying kids don’t even have aspirations, they’re not motivated to become something in the future."

According to non-profit Generation Gives, only 69 percent of students earn more than a high school education in Vieques. Only 19 percent earn a Bachelor’s degree – about three-fifths the rate on the U.S. mainland.

“I talked to a lot of people about the education problem and I was like ‘it can’t stay here,'” Valendon Lopez said. “I have to do something for my island now.”

When Valedon Lopez returned to Minnesota she requested a year-long leave of absence to bring the joy of reading to Vieques by way of a bookmobile. Her request was granted with the moral support of Minneapolis Public Schools staff.

“It’s a big gamble, and I think it’s also a selfless gamble, right?" said Carrie Hernandez, an administrative teacher on special assignment serving as Andersen United Community’s assistant principal. "She’s putting a lot on the line to be able to make a change, but I also would say I think that comes with the heart of an educator.”

“It’s a great opportunity that she can take a leave and still have her job back, we’ll miss her, but it’s a great opportunity,” Hernandez added.

Already Valedon Lopez has launched a GoFundMe page with a goal to raise at least $20,000. 

“Why? Well because I need a van, we need to accommodate it so that it looks like a library, that it has the books in English and in Spanish for kids through 14- or 15-year-olds, and even adults,” Valedon Lopez said.

At last check, she’s only raised $315.

According to Valedon Lopez’s proposal, the funds collected will also be used to acquire iPads, a wi-fi hotspot, and materials for hands on activities. 

“I thought, 'bookmobile' so I can travel around different parts of the island, station myself, bring lessons, read a book with a theme and maybe even do bilingual education right there,” she said.

The inspired teacher will also partner with non-profits in Puerto Rico to bring young learners hands-on activities and inspire learning across several fields. She even plans to teach someone locally to run the bookmobile, leaving the project behind when she returns to Minnesota--though she still plans to check in online from time to time.

“She’s making big changes…and I think we’ll feel the ripple of that as well,” Hernandez said.

Valedon Lopez will head to Vieques to make the bookmobile a reality the last week of July.

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