Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived children without any storybooks.
They had TV. They had boring old textbooks. But neither at school nor at home did they have real stories, the kind with heroes, talking animals and pictures.
This didn’t seem right to Melissa Clouser.
All the way from Bellefonte she had come to the Philippines to be a Peace Corps teacher. She wanted the boys and girls in her classes to read better. The problem was they had nothing fun to read.
Clouser decided what to do. She would create a new library. Then she would fill it with books.
And that’s just what happened.
Because of Clouser’s wish, a plain classroom in her school turned into a magical palace for reading. Carpenters built a curving checkout counter, a comfy bench and bookshelves, lots of shelves. Clouser and her students painted them many colors, like a mix of gems, candy and tropical flowers.
She still needed books, though, and asked her family and her boyfriend’s family back home for help. They thought it was a wonderful idea, and they collected so many stories they packed one box after another.
One day, Clouser looked around and saw her shelves full. She saw smiling children sitting at tables on bright chairs or on the bench with beautiful pillows she had sewn. Everyone was turning pages.
Her wish had come true.
“It was very obvious that this was a big need for the school,” she said on Friday, about two weeks after she returned from more than two years of adventure.
Her own story, her road to the Philippines, began at Penn State.
As an art education student, she explored Florence, Italy, for a semester. She discovered that she loved other cultures.
“I got the travel bug then,” she said.
After graduating in 2011, she applied to the Peace Corps. She told them she didn’t care where they sent her. Anywhere far away would be fine.
“Being fresh out of college, I wasn’t settled down yet, so I had the freedom to move to another country for a couple of years,” she said. “I wanted to take advantage of not having strings.”
Her first assignment was sub-Saharan Africa, but it soon changed. Off went Clouser to the other side of the world.
She was excited. One of her cousins is Filipino by birth, adopted as a baby. She looked forward to learning about his original country.
There was so much to learn.
Filipinos spoke Tagalog as well as English. They had different customs such as “Mano,” when a person shows respect and asks for blessing by pressing to his or her forehead an elder’s offered hand. They rode around in “trikes,” three-wheeled vehicles powered by motorcycles.
And they lived with rain that often floods streets and heat that makes everybody slow and sticky.
Clouser also learned how friendly and welcoming her first host family, fellow teachers at Magarao Central School and other Filipinos are. Quickly, she adopted the small town of Magarao about two hours southeast of Manila as her own.
She loved her second-grade and fifth-grade students just as much — enough to build them a library.
It took a grant to get started. She needed shopping trips and weeks of hard work to finish. But without her parents, Susan and Todd Clouser, and her boyfriend Ricky Missett’s family in Exeter, her eye-catching shelves would have stayed empty.
Thanks to them, Clouser got almost 4,000 books. She had so many, she gave extras to teachers at her school for their classrooms and to other Peace Corps volunteers starting libraries.
From the start, she knew her library was a big hit.
“It was really exciting, especially when the kids first realized the library was open,” she said. “As soon as the recess bell rang, they would run and sprint to the library so they would be the first ones in.”
Eventually, it became too noisy and crowded. Too many children wanted to read and play Hangman, a super-popular game that she introduced. They had to take turns.
Clouser changed her students’ lives, and they changed hers.
She’s 25 now with her life ahead. Because of the past two years, she might not become an art teacher as she once hoped.
Maybe, she thinks, there’s another path for her, working to help poor and struggling people. She will never forget befriending sick and malnourished children in another town. Nuns cared for them in a special home until they were strong enough to return to their families.
“That was definitely one of my favorite parts of my service,” she said. “Obviously, it wasn’t an assignment; it wasn’t even a secondary project. It was something I did for myself.”
Her heart is still in the Philippines. She’s making quilts to sell in art festivals next summer and raise money for her former neighbors.
They slept on cardboard across cement floors before she helped them buy foam mattresses. A typhoon flooded and ruined their house, and now she wants the family of four to have a new one. People can join her at http://www.gofundme.com/ReforbaHouse.
These days, she’s glad to be home. But she misses a lot of people. They didn’t mean to but they made the ending to her Philippines story a sad one.
On her last day, her neighbors kept coming by. They sat around her empty house, played Uno and Skip-Bo with her and tried not to think about her evening bus.
“We just spent all day together,” Clouser said. “Because we didn’t want the night to come.”