The Power of Accompaniment: In Education, in Health, in Life Journeys

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about company. The children in our LitWorld programs are often very lonely at the end of the school day. They will linger at the community center rather than have to go home to an empty apartment. The children in Kibera, Kenya, walk long and very treacherous distances to get from school to home, through winding alleys, often in a cold darkness.

I have been thinking about what we can share with children that will make their journeys less lonely.

Growing up, I loved the sound of my mother's voice reading to me. I can still hear her reading "kerplink, kerplank, kerplunk," her voice moving through the words much like I imagine Sal's mother moves through the blueberry bushes in the great book Blueberries for Sal. The journey that I am on now began simply; sharing stories with my mother. The sound of her voice and the story itself constantly return from my memory as inspiration and as comfort, even on my grownup journeys.

The work of accompaniment is something our friends at Partners in Health know well and exemplify with their patients.

Last November my LitWorld team and I had the opportunity to visit with Partners in Health (PIH) at one of their sites in Rwanda where they are treating many young women, many of them mothers or mothers-to-be, who are HIV-positive. According to PIH, it is widely believed that up to 3 percent of Rwandans are infected with HIV and many who were infected during the genocide in 1994, often as victims of rape, now suffer from full-blown AIDS. It has been a dire situation but there is true hope for many of these women today because of better and more sustainable treatments and thanks to the extraordinary care provided by the PIH clinics.

PIH has not only set out to treat the symptoms of this devastating disease, but also to accompany women on a lifelong journey of health, healing and education; addressing the root causes of the disease and what can be done in order to maintain healthy practices and educate women on the ways in which they live full and productive lives. This mission to accompany women on their journey rather than just medicate them and send them off alone, resonates very strongly with me and with all of us at LitWorld. How can we serve as side-by-side accompaniment to children and their parents who so hunger for learning and so love the stories that bring great joy? So that the dark pathways home are accompanied by the memory of a story, the sound of a beloved voice reading aloud?

On a personal note, we had taken with us on this trip my very determined father, Bill, who is 76 years old. He very much wanted to see our LitWorld work and meet our friends both in Kenya and Rwanda. By the time we got to Rwanda, he was extremely depleted, though he had not let on to us at all. He was facing a few health issues he had kept to himself the last few days of the trip. We were therefore able to see firsthand the loving care of PIH doctors (a special thank you to the extraordinary Dr. Vincent DeGennaro) and the thoughtful, caring, loving nature of medical care when it is not just about the body, it is also about the mind and the spirit. As we sat there with my father, I recognized I would have wanted him to receive medical care nowhere else on earth but with PIH, for as he faced both the immediacy of his condition with his transition from robust healthy younger man to an older man grappling with the changes life brings, I wanted someone who could feel the profound power of his stories, of his life, of his dignity. And that is what PIH embodies.

I believe that literacy is all about this idea of accompaniment. It's about raising our voices, sharing our stories, communicating our ideas and hopes and dreams and learning about other worlds, exploring the imaginations of our fellow authors together. Literacy allows the child walking the lonely path or the woman facing a new story of HIV or the father waiting in the clinic for his IV can hear the power, the deep and stirring power of not being alone.

The word "literacy" means what I call a LitLoop: reading, writing, speaking and listening. The act of sharing stories across distances builds literacy capacities. With respect for the power of intergenerational sharing, we can all share a love of reading and the power of words to give power to people's own stories. And beyond all else, we know without a doubt that stories, the sound of each other's voices and the idea that no one is alone brings light to those lonely journeys and fills them with the power of accompaniment.