CAPE ELIZABETH — Four thousand miles from Cape Elizabeth, former resident Emma Inhorn, 23, plans to build an in-school library for 60 children in a small town outside Almirante, Panama.

The library will comprise 196 children’s books written in Spanish that the sixth-grade class at Cape Elizabeth Middle School donated to Inhorn on Monday.

Inhorn, a Peace Corps volunteer, graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School in 2013 and has been living with the indigenous Ngäbe community in Panama since July 2017. She is a World Wise School partner with Susan Dana’s sixth-grade Spanish class at CEMS.

The class and Inhorn remain in contact throughout Inhorn’s two-year stay in Panama, exchanging cultural experiences via letters and email.

“As a world language teacher, I don’t want students to just learn their language isolated in the classroom,” Dana said in a phone interview. “It’s a way for them to use their language outside of the classroom. Especially in Cape Elizabeth, we tend to be a homogeneous population. … I have to bring the world into the classroom, so it’s just one way to do it.”

Dana, now completing her 27th year of teaching Spanish at CEHS, first participated as a World Wise School partner in 1996. She has since had nine volunteers, including Inhorn.

On Monday, Inhorn visited the students in person to share photos and stories from Panama, while the students surprised her with their book donation for her new library and book club.

“I did not know … I was so excited,” Inhorn said in a phone interview.

Dana said her students learned from one of Inhorn’s emails that the Panamanian children had little access to books. “So from there we asked, ‘How are we going to raise the money?’”

In January, the sixth grade hosted a three-week “penny war” fundraising competition to raise money. All six homerooms had a gallon jug to collect pennies. Each penny was worth one point, while a nickel was worth negative five points, a dime negative ten, and so on.

After three weeks, the students had collected 14,928 coins, totaling $402.71 for the book fund.

“Each child was able to pick one title, and some actually picked more than one,” Dana said. “Each child made a bookmark, and some made two or three. I’d written a little cheat sheet too, and they wrote messages inside and signed with their first name.”

The class purchased 146 books and the Student Council donated 50 – a total of 196 books for Inhorn’s new library and book club.

“I’m just so grateful because I only have four books that the kids can read,” Inhorn said.

The library and book club will be a good opportunity for children to practice reading out loud, she said, to bring the stories back into their homes, and for parents to spend time with their children.

“Education is one of the most important things,” Inhorn said. “My community is really passionate about advocating for education since the teacher doesn’t actually live in the community.”

Likewise, the fundraising process was a beneficial experience for the sixth-graders, Dana said. The students learned the impact their money could have, practiced their Spanish, and now share this physical connection with another community.

“I think it was worthwhile for the students to reflect,” she said. “They’re very fortunate with everything that they have.”

In a follow-up email, she said, “Donating the books was something tangible that they can understand and of which they are proud.

“It’s always good to shine a light on the positive things our young people are doing today. Given guidance and support, they are willing and excited to work towards a common goal to help others.”

In addition to the book project, Inhorn also serves as a Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene facilitator through Peace Corps. She is working on two engineering projects in the community: creating aqueducts for channeling water and building eight rainwater collection tanks.

Although the aqueducts are still in their engineering phase as part of a six-year project, she said she hopes the rainwater tanks will be completed before she leaves Panama later this year.

“The point of Peace Corps is that you have a counterpart, so I’m not supposed to be doing any projects by myself, to make it more sustainable,” Inhorn said Monday. “Ideally my counterparts will continue the project after Peace Corps is gone.”

She said she also plans to form a local committee that she can teach to build more rainwater tanks after she leaves.

Peace Corps volunteer Emma Inhorn, a 2013 graduate of Cape Elizabeth High School, with some of the nearly 200 books collected for her Panamanian students by sixth-graders at Cape Elizabeth Middle School.

Bookmarks created by Cape Elizabeth Middle School students for Peace Corps volunteer Emma Inhorn’s students in Panama.