SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA - Nearly eight hundred million people in this world are illiterate, most of them in developing countries. Two-thirds are women and girls.
A former Microsoft executive, who hopes to put a dent in those numbers, has opened 1,650 schools and 15,000 libraries in some of the world’s poorest communities.
“The thing I learned at Microsoft was that bold goals attract bold people," said John Wood, founder of the Room to Read campaign. "From the very beginning, I said Room to Read’s goal was to reach 10 million children around the world in the poorest countries.”
In 1998, on a three-week vacation trek in Nepal, Wood, then a Microsoft executive, met a local headmaster who invited him to visit his school in a remote mountain village. The experience changed Wood’s life.
“This headmaster has 450 students at the school, but he didn’t have any books," Wood said. "He had a library that was completely empty.”
Wood promised to fill the library shelves and returned to the village a year later with a team of yaks carrying bags filled with 3,000 books. And that was just the start.
Wood retired from Microsoft and used some of his personal wealth to start Room to Read. The not-for-profit organization is based on the belief that world change begins with educated children. Today, the nonprofit operates in 10 countries across Asia and Africa.
“It’s amazing what we’ve accomplished. We’ve built a world-class organization that’s really a thought-leader on solutions for education in the developing world,” said Erin Ganju, Room to Read’s co-founder and CEO.
While global literacy is its primary goal, gender equality is just as important. To help girls empower themselves, Room to Read funds a long-term girls’ education program.
“It really focuses on not only keeping girls in school longer, through the end of secondary school, but helps support them holistically," Ganju said. "We bring female mentors into the communities that act as role models for the girls and we provide them with life skills workshops after school, where they learn critical skills such as goal-setting, leadership skills, problem-solving and they really become different.”
Wood believes the key to the program’s success is local involvement. While Room to Read donates money and provides books, communities donate land, parents contribute labor to build the school, and the country’s ministry of education agrees to pay salaries for the teachers and librarians.
Room to Read has also set up local printing plants that produce culturally-relevant children’s books in bright, appealing colors. They are written in native tongues by local authors and illustrated by local artists.
By the end of 2013, Room to Read will have published 1,000 original titles in over 20 languages, according to Wood.
“I often joke that Room to Read is the biggest children’s publisher you’ve never heard of because your kids probably are not reading in the languages that we’re publishing in," he said. "But those children in Vietnam, Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, South Africa, they deserve to have books in their mother tongue just as kids here in America do.”
Agnes, a Room to Read teacher in Zambia who also runs the library, is proud to say the literacy at her school has improved.
“I’m happy for that and that is why I can’t let it go," Agnes said. "I have to work hard and make sure that every pupil can benefit from the library.”
Room to Read’s biggest challenge is overwhelming demand. Hundreds of communities have asked for literacy programs, according to Wood, who regards these requests as lost opportunities.
“What drives me is really the idea of our strong local teams at Room to Read should not be in the business of saying ‘no’ or ‘not yet.’ They should be in the business of saying ‘yes,’" said Wood, who recently published his second book about the program, Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy. "Yes to your community having literacy programs. Yes to your girls being empowered by education. Yes to every child having a place in a school that is well-run and has really good teachers and I am not going to give up on that goal.”
One measure of Room to Read’s success is that it will accomplish Wood’s goal of reaching 10 million kids by 2015, five years earlier than planned.