SANTA FE, N.M. — When youths at the Santa Fe School for the Arts and Sciences asked Nobel Peace Prize recipient Betty Williams for advice Wednesday, her answer was short and emphatic:
“Never give up.”
She was awarded the prize in 1976 after witnessing the deaths of three children during the “troubles” in her Northern Ireland home, where the Irish Republican Army battled British authorities. She collected 6,000 signatures within a couple of days from people urging peace and, with the children’s aunt, Mairead Corrigan, founded Women for Peace.
Ever since then, Williams said, she has been criss-crossing the world, speaking out for peace and for improved conditions for children.
On 9/11, she said, when terrorists flew jets into buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C., killing thousands of people, 35,615 children in the world died from malnutrition – “and no one said a word.”
She said she’s been called an “idealistic fool.”
Move past the nay-sayers, she told the students.
“Say, ‘You’re in my light, move over,’ ” Williams said. “Apathy is the worst killer.”
Williams visited the school as a reward for its Youth United program Hooked on Books, which won the Global PeaceJam Award last year. The program includes a free, two-week summer reading camp, as well as monthly contests in local schools to encourage reading and shelves of free books in places where children find themselves waiting with their parents, such as Motor Vehicle Division offices.
Also, students from other schools come to the School for the Arts and Sciences after classes to get tutoring and help with their homework.
Some of the teens said they heard some discouraging words as they developed their program.
“People would say, ‘How is your program going to work? You’re just kids. You’re not teachers,’ ” said Lauren Sarkissian, a School for the Arts and Sciences graduate and one of the program founders, now attending the New Mexico School for the Arts.
But Kendra Carmona, also a graduate, founder and current School for the Arts student, said she told them, “We are in their shoes and understand them (children who need help reading) even better than adults.”
“The idea was,” said Faridah Ndiaye, another graduate, founder and student at Monte del Sol, “to get kids in the community hooked on books rather than on drugs.”
Williams told them they were helping bring peace and security to their community, because kids who read well are less likely to grow up to be adults who commit crimes.
“I’m so proud of you,” she told the students, who gathered in a room for tea and cookies with Williams after she toured the school. She said their project reminded her of Nelson Mandela’s slogan that “each one teach one.”
“This project could go nationwide,” she said, soon brain-storming with the students about how she might get other Nobel Peace laureates to join her in sending a letter to Gov. Susana Martinez to encourage her to allocate funding to the literacy program.
In the long run, Williams said, teaching kids to read now will save spending later on prisons.
“The governor is probably a really nice lady,” Williams said. “Maybe we have to love her into submission.”
After all, she reminded them, “Non-violence is the weapon of the strong, not the weak.”
But while idealism was the theme of the visit, there were lighter moments, too.
In one classroom, Williams asked, “Do you all believe in angels? I do. I love angels.”
One boy in another class piped up, “I believe in leprechauns!”
Pointing to Ireland on a map, Williams told students, “You could put Ireland … the whole country in the state of Texas three times, and still have room left over.”
And during the tea, one student asked if the travelers had tried green chile yet.
“I don’t think I’m that brave!” said Deborah Williams, who was traveling with her mother and helps with her work.
Betty Williams interjected, “Is that the one that makes steam come out of your ears?”