Library For London Gives Hope to a Community
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By Jordan Venema
Photos: Jacki Potorke
“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back, or from which to look ahead,” writes novelist Graham Greene. His observation belies the difficulty inherent to storytelling because every story is built around exclusion. What an audience is given to read is just the words between parentheses, outside of which lie the countless stories omitted by necessity. And since there’s a good chance most readers have never even heard of London, this quote rings especially true. You see, there’s a story brewing in London.
Not London, England. London, California. New London, a town hardly larger than a community college and bordered by orchards, lies a few miles southwest of Dinuba. Those who have heard of London probably know its reputation: drugs, gangs, dirt roads, stray dogs – but mostly drugs. No, it’s not a complete portrait, but stereotypes rarely are. Yet this story stands out all the more against that kind of backdrop, a reputation that has clung to and smothered this isolated town of some 2,000 souls.
Born in London, Robert Isquierdo knows too well about that reputation. It’s the reason he left when he turned 18, why he never wanted to come back. “I spent 90 percent of my time in Dinuba trying to escape the traps of London,” says Isquierdo, referring to the drugs, the gangs. After high school, he moved to Southern California, pursued education, became a teacher, married, began a family. And then he found faith. “That’s when it hit me,” he says. “I just kept hearing serve, serve... and out of nowhere, what about the kids in your hometown?”
So Isquierdo started collecting books. At the time he lived in Santa Clarita, and he began by going on the radio to ask for donations. People responded; he collected books, one box, two boxes, 10 boxes –15,000 books in all, and he stored them in his garage.
Isquierdo wanted to start a library, but he didn’t have a concrete plan, so he looked to London for support. “I came here and asked, ‘Who’s in charge, who runs things?’” Residents pointed him to Matt Naylor.
Naylor grew up near London, but planned to become a missionary in Uganda. When he contacted JARON Ministries International to ask about Africa, “they turned the question on me,” says Naylor. Rob Carter, JARON’s missions director, asked him, “What about London?” And for the last five years, Naylor has been asking himself that question every day.
Naylor, a missionary with JARON and board member of Citizens for a Better London, wears a lot of hats in the community. He pastors a church in Reedley, “which pays my addiction to community development,” he says with a laugh. His first assignment with JARON was to host a missionary team from Sacramento, after which, says Naylor, “I had no plan, I had no strategy.” He began organizing weekly soccer games, but the game wasn’t trivial: Naylor was immersing himself into the community. “The goal here,” says Naylor, “has been to do things in a way that is sustainable and healthy with as much community input and involvement as possible.” He calls it a holistic Gospel.
Soccer games led to involvement with the local community center, to opening a thrift store, to organizing a Christmas parade, a Thanksgiving dinner. A young boy rides by on a bike and Naylor calls his name; they shake hands and talk briefly. It’s those individual relationships that prepared Naylor for when Isquierdo arrived in London with 15,000 books and an idea.
“Rob is the voice and visionary for the library,” says Naylor. Between Isquierdo’s vision and Naylor’s ties in the community, The Library for London Project has quickly built momentum in an unlikely place. And in a community with only one curb, a center of education has the potential to be life changing. Kids who are bussed miles away to Kings River Elementary and Dinuba High School will now have a world of possibility just blocks from their front door. “It’s going to be huge,” says Naylor. “Books open the realm of possibility.”
Naylor isn’t just talking about escapism through a book. He believes that just the presence of a library can provide hope to combat the poverty that lies at the town’s very foundation. “It more resembles a community in the developing world in a number of ways,” explains Naylor. A result of the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, London began as land parceled out to farm workers by a landowner. Due to population increase and its isolation, London developed a “kind of a wild west sort of feel,” says Naylor. The isolation encouraged an atmosphere of drugs, which in turn brought the gangs. But Naylor turns the idea of London’s poverty on its head. “Poverty isn’t material. It’s emotional, it’s spiritual,” he says. “And the greatest poverty here is the poverty of hope, (a poverty from) lack of choice and opportunity.” And if children are the hope of a community, much of London’s hope has either died through overdose or left, like Isquierdo did, at the first opportunity.
While driving through “the projects,” Isquierdo points out the house where his best friend used to live. “He’s living in L.A. now,” Isquierdo says, then points to a second house of a friend who died. “He stayed here in London, and he was coked out one day and flipped his truck.” Two roads, Isquierdo seems to point out, for those who leave and those who stay. But what about those who come back, like Isquierdo and Naylor? They’re paving the way for others to follow, and giving hope that there’s another choice.
Even in the last five years, the atmosphere of London has changed. “Oh yeah, we would have been pulled over,” and people would have approached the car to intimidate or make a drug deal, Isquierdo says. But now, people are fed up. The community is getting involved, has already been involved. “It’s a movement that started long before I even thought of the library,” he says, but that momentum is bringing others to support his vision. The Tulare County Library is donating books and inventory, and Dinuba Public Schools is providing the portable to house the books; a local resident is giving his property for the location of the library, and a 5-year-old boy is raising money by recycling cans. “There’s a lot of little stories like that,” says Isquierdo.
These stories don’t end when the library opens in January because, according to Isquierdo, they didn’t really start with the library. So once those doors open, what will be next? The question will still remain, “What about London?” Like Naylor, Isquierdo has made the question personal. You can see it when he greets residents by name, as he passes out “Library for London Project” shirts that he pulls from the trunk of his car. This is bigger than a library, which is why Isquierdo hopes to start a program for the young men of London, “our future leaders,” he calls them. It’s about bringing hope back to London, through London. Because Naylor is right: real poverty isn’t material. Real poverty comes from lack of hope. Beating that poverty might begin with books, but it’s really going to happen because of the individuals who believe in London, who believe there’s a story worth telling, and a better story worth living.
www.libraryforlondon.com • www.facebook.com/Library4London