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Organization Gives Books to East Asian Children

A former executive for Microsoft has traded one vision of success for another, less conventional, formula. Several years ago, he left his comfortable job with the U.S. computer giant and went to work full-time to raise literacy among children in less-developed poorer countries like Nepal, Vietnam, and Cambodia.

What do children in Nepal like to read? Fifteen-year-old Nepalese student Archana Chand says one of her favorites is an unexpected choice, Robin Hood, the historical folk legend of a British outlaw who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

"Because that is an adventurous and interesting story," she said.

Never mind that the story takes place in a location and culture utterly foreign to her. Archana says reading English-language books from other countries helps broadens her knowledge and teaches her about different experiences.

Robin Hood is just one of the 400 books donated to Archana's school outside of Kathmandu by the San Francisco-based non-governmental organization, Room to Read.

Bringing books from the United States to countries like Nepal is a full-time job for the group's founder, former business executive John Wood.

"I started Room to Read in 1998 because I was trekking in Nepal and was invited by some local teachers to visit their library," he explained. "And the library had a serious lack of books, and they asked for my help. And I started collecting books. And so it was from very, very simple beginnings, with the goal of doing one school library, with maybe 100 books."

The organization operates in Nepal, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Its three main programs include constructing schools, establishing libraries, and providing long-term scholarships so girls from rural areas can go to school.

Room to Read's money comes from private donations and challenge grants in which local residents who want to have a school established in their village put up half the funds. The group also relies on donated goods, such as tens-of-thousands of books given by publishers, as well as the work of about 100 volunteers. On the group's webpage, Mr. Wood, who does not draw a salary, calls himself an "Enthusiastic Volunteer."

Mr. Wood says his group tries to find books that will expand the horizons of Nepali children without preaching religion to them.

"Certainly, any books that are donated to us that proselytize a Christian religion, for example, or that have culturally insensitive material, we will not send those books to any of the countries overseas," he said. "We will simply throw those in the recycle bin here in San Francisco."

Mr. Wood says he feels lucky as an American, because he can learn about anything going on in any other part of the world.

"We want Nepali kids to have that same opportunity to learn about the outside world and to learn what legends do children in London grow up reading about, and what does African wildlife look like, and what does Machu Picchu look like," he said.

Nepal was Room to Read's first country. In explaining how Nepal chose him, Mr. Wood says after the first school library there was built, more than 300 headmasters from around the country came and asked for similar help.

Headmaster Bal Krishna Sharma leads 619 students at the all-girls Shree Pashupati Kanya Mandir Secondary School in Charikot. He says Room to Read helped set up the school's library by donating 500 books on a wide range of subjects, including math, science, and a topic that appeals to all kids.

"The books that the students have found very interest[ing] are as (about) baby animals," he said.

The Nepalese headmaster says some of his students' favorite titles include Animal Bandits, Arctic Dreams, Humpty Dumpty and Hey, Diddle, Diddle.

"So, these are very interesting books for the students because they are informative, they are enjoying and they are very beautiful pictures," he said. "And the students, especially at the primary level, are interested to have colorful pictures and they try to understand those pictures, as well as the meaning they get from the books."

Other than providing books for libraries, Room to Read has built 25 schools in rural villages in Nepal.

The NGO also has provided 10-year scholarships, of about $200 each, to 70 young Nepalese girls. The group stresses females because of Nepal's traditional custom of choosing boys over girls for education.

State Department figures from October 2001 say 52 percent of males over 15 in Nepal are literate. This is nearly three times the number for women, which is only 18 percent.

Fifteen-year-old Archana Chand says there are many girls in her country who are not allowed to go to school.

"Because their parents do not want to send them (to) schools and so they have to do their household works," she said. "And they have to stay at home."

Archana has ambitious, non-traditional, plans for her own future. She wants to explore new places and she wants to be a journalist when she grows up. But her curiosity for other places is grounded in her love of her home country.

She says she most wants to see Switzerland. When asked why, she said it is because she believes Switzerland is just like Nepal.