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Saturday, Dec. 15, 2007

Bringing books, schools to the world's children


Staff writer

Immediately after meeting John Wood and hearing the story of his Room to Read program, I was reminded of one of my favorite childhood books. Though he isn't prone to wearing green leotards or stealing from the rich, this modern-day Robin Hood acquires donations from the world's largest companies and distributes them to the poor in a form that will last many lifetimes.

Room to Read
Room to Read has given 1.3 million children around the world access to schools and libraries since it began in 1999.

"I want to break poverty with the power of education," says Wood, who aims to help educate 3 million kids by the year 2010. "If you want to change the world long term, there's no better place to start than with the little people."

In 1998, Wood decided to take a break from the hustle and bustle of his high-tech executive job and head to Nepal.

During his trip to the massive, imposing mountains, Wood chatted with a local man who invited him to visit the school he owned. Eager to grab the chance to see something that Westerners rarely see, Wood soon found himself sweating his way up a steep, rocky slope toward the village's only school.

"What was amazing when I saw the school was the conditions in which the children had to learn," Wood says, going on to describe rooms with floors of dirt and walls at the point of crumbling.

The most disturbing part, he says, was the library.

"Sadly, it was a library in name only. They did not have chairs, they did not have desks, and most importantly, they did not have books," he says.

After seeing the look on Wood's face, the man said, "Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books."

Wood wasted no time. He sent a group e-mail to his friends asking them to donate books, and when he returned to the United States, he quit his hectic job in the high-tech world and set off on a different path.

One year later, Wood returned to Nepal, where he loaded a pile of books onto the back of a yak and returned to the village school.

"It was like a mosh pit," he says. "Children were stage diving onto the books.

"To watch kids seeing African animals and great white sharks for the first time, to me that was an incredible feeling," he says. "It was the biggest day the village had because they were getting a library."

Since that first group e-mail Wood sent eight years ago, he has given 1.3 million children access to schools and libraries.

"We're trying to take this to a scale that has never existed before in an NGO. We don't believe in a charity that airlifts things, drops them off and says 'there you go, see you later,' because that's not sustainable," Wood says. "We enlist the community to get involved, so we set up for long-term success. We also work with local authors and publishers and do librarian training."

Everything is delivered by local transportation, for example by tuk tuks or donkeys. Instead of investing in expensive jeep vehicles or SUVs, they put the money where it will do the most good. Wood says his charity is "for people who have said to themselves, 'I've traveled around the world, I've seen the poverty, and I'm not going to be paralyzed — I'm going to take action. ' "

Providing a girl with 10 years of education costs $2,500; $5,000 buys 5,000 local-language children's books; $10,000 can build a library and fill it with books and a trained librarian; and it costs $15,000 to $25,000 to build a school.

Wood encourages wealthy people, in lieu of giving yet another diamond ring for an anniversary present, to buy a school in their loved one's honor instead.

So far, quite a few have taken to the idea. To date, over 2,000 white-collar professionals have gotten involved, representing companies such as Goldman Sachs, Accenture, Cathay Pacific and Credit Suisse; and four out of five of the world's biggest hedge fund companies have invested. Thirty Room to Read fundraising chapters have opened in major cities worldwide.

Woods has bench-marked Room to Read's expansion against Starbucks,one of the fastest growing companies in the last decade.

"If you need a good latte in the world, you need literacy in the world. By our fourth year we were out-Starbucking Starbucks," Wood says, adding that on average in 2007, four new libraries have been built each day. "Between lunch and dinner we'll have opened a new library."

However, Wood knows that in order to use a library, one must first be able to read. To this end, Wood tackles three main challenges.

First, 110 million children of primary school age are not enrolled in school. Of those children, 84 percent live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. In response to that issue, Room to Read has made partnerships with local communities to replace dilapidated schools in the eight countries with the lowest global literacy rates. In 2000, two schools were built in those countries. To date, 444 were.

Second, two-thirds of the world's illiterate population is comprised of females. Within each program, providing she passes each year, a girl will receive scholarships until the end of grade 12, in addition to school uniforms, shoes, bicycles, health care and after-school tutors. In 2000, 340 girls got the scholarship. In 2007, 4,200 did.

Finally, 800 million people around the world are illiterate. To help relieve this problem, Wood creates Reader Rooms, reader-friendly environments, and helps fill them with local-language books.

Last fall, Wood broke the 5,000 mark with the number of libraries created, and since then he has published 250 original-title books.

As Japan is the world's second-largest economy — and the largest in Asia — Wood is hoping corporations here will open a new chapter in their ventures by giving poor children the gift of education.

Eight schools in developing countries have opened and 1,200 girls have had scholar ships funded thanks to individuals in Japan.

"I believe Japan has a big role to play in philanthropy," Wood says. "Forty-five percent of the children across the developing world who are not enrolled in school live right on Japan's doorstep, in places like Cambodia and Vietnam and Laos."

For those who cannot afford to build a school or sponsor a girl's education, Room to Read projects receive proceeds from Wood's book, "Leaving Microsoft to Change the World," which is available in 16 languages.

For more information, please visit www.roomtoread.org


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