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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Room to Read: Building Libraries, Schools, and Computer Labs in Developing Countries

One man's simple plan to expand worldwide literacy, thousands of libraries at a time.
By Sara Bernard

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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 and effort.

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 2008.

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.

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