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When John Wood, an executive at Microsoft,
visited a local school in Bahundanda, Nepal,
in 1998, he saw something odd: a room
labeled "Library" in which no books were
visible. It turned out they were locked in a cabinet -- all twenty
of them -- to prevent damage at the hands of the cash-strapped
school's 450 students.
Not long afterward, Wood left Microsoft to found Books
for Nepal, which rapidly developed into Room to Read, an
international literacy nonprofit organization that builds bilingual
libraries, schools, and computer labs in developing countries.
The organization also collects donations of English-language
books, publishes local-language books, and creates
long-term scholarships for girls. Since its inception in 2000,
Room to Read has established programs in Cambodia, India,
Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Zambia;
the organization plans for branches in Latin America in 2008.
"I feel there's a moral obligation to reach out and do a lot
more for kids in these parts of the world who have never had
access to books or libraries or teachers," says Wood, who has
taken his dream from an initial donkey-load of donated
books to an organization that has built thousands of
libraries and hundreds of schools (a story told in his memoir,
Leaving Microsoft to Change the World: An Entrepreneur's
Odyssey to Educate the World's Children). "You
don't get do-overs with education," he adds. "If we don't
reach the five-year-olds today, next year or next decade is
simply too late."
More Bang for the Buck
Room to Read keeps administrative overhead low, so almost
every dollar raised goes directly to its in-country projects.
But the exponential growth of the organization, Wood says,
is mostly due to the international community of Room to
Read's volunteers who donate their time and money to the
cause. Students are especially generous with their time
Students Helping Students, one of the organization's most
successful programs, began in 2004, when three ambitious
preteens launched a fundraiser for students and schools in
tsunami-stricken Sri Lanka. Sales of $3 wristbands, plus
student-run events, earned an impressive $400,000 for the
country's rebuilding efforts. Now, Students Helping
Students is a growing movement that encourages students
around the world to take action in their communities,
organize fundraisers at their schools, and learn about the
inequities of a world where access to education -- or even to
something as fundamental as books -- is not a given.
"It's important for students not only to learn about what's
going on in the world but also to gain a sense that they really
can make a difference," says program manager Molly
Redding, a champion of the approach central to both
Students Helping Students and Room to Read: social entrepreneurship.
The idea that business skills can be used to create positive
social change has helped recruit young social entrepreneurs
who have launched charity balls, book drives, auctions, fashion shows, and other inventive ways to raise
money. Read-a-Thons, one of Room to Read's most popular
fundraisers, help kids improve their own literacy skills while
raising money for others. (A downloadable Read-a-Thon kit
is available on the Room to Read Web site.)
The Kids Are All Right
These programs "engage students in a new way -- a very
student-centered way," says Anna Maria Menza, a teacher-librarian
at Cherry Creek High School, in Greenwood
Village, Colorado. The school opened
its own Room to Read Café, complete
with donated baked goods, espresso
machine, and an experienced barista.
Students and teachers decorated the
café with Room to Read educational
materials and tirelessly spread the word to the school and
community. They raised $3,500 in a single week -- enough to
build a school library in Nepal.
"It helped them understand how lucky they are to have
access to a free education," Menza adds. Participating in
these kinds of fundraisers and events encourages students
to think of themselves as global citizens, program manager
Molly Redding points out, as well as sharpening critical-thinking
and problem-solving skills. Not least, says Redding,
the fundraising efforts tap into the ingenuity and optimism
many young people have in abundance.
As an added push this year, Room to Read has inaugurated
the Literacy One Challenge, which invites students and
schools to match a 2007 donation from Scholastic of
400,000 English-language books sent to Room to Read
schools and libraries in Cambodia. Funds raised during the
2007-08 academic year will go directly to Room to Read's
local-language publishing program, with awards for "most
funds raised," "most creative," and "a little goes a long way"
to be presented to contributors in summer
Thanks in part to these grassroots
efforts, Room to Read can boast some
astonishing results: During its seven-year
existence, the organization has
opened nearly 5,000 school libraries and about 400 schools,
donated more than 1.4 million English-language books,
published 146 local-language titles, and touched the lives of
roughly 1.5 million students in developing countries.
Still, Wood is modest about these accomplishments.
Judging by the size of the problem -- one-seventh of humanity
is illiterate and has no access to a basic education -- he
says, "it's not time to pop the champagne corks yet! We've got
a long, long way to go."
As the World Learns > Russia
Sara Bernard is a former staff writer and multimedia producer for Edutopia.