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Nepal earthquake 2015

Hong Kong helps Nepal: NGO founder fears what quake impact he'll find

John Wood, founder of international education charity Room to Read, visits the country for first time since two earthquakes damaged and destroyed thousands of classrooms. John will blog daily on SCMP.com about what he finds

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 July, 2015, 11:22pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 5:39pm

I arrive at Hong Kong International Airport on Sunday night not looking forward to this trip, but instead kind of dreading it.  

Most trips to Chek Lap Kok involve eager anticipation – of a quick holiday or a productive business trip ahead. But tonight, I am heading to my favourite country in the world (and that of many Hongkongers), Nepal, and I’m bracing myself for what I was going to see of the land hit by a massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake in April.

Three days in the quake zone lie in front of me, and there is little I can do to prepare myself for what will inevitably be a difficult emotional journey.

I first visited Nepal in 1998 when I was an executive with Microsoft; what I saw changed my life. A headmaster in a rural village in the Annapurna mountain range showed me an empty library "serving" 450 children and explained: “In Nepal, we are too poor to afford education. But until we have it, we will always remain poor.”

One year later, I went back to the village of Bahundanda with my 73-year-old father (unpaid right-hand man) and 3,000 books on the backs of six rented donkeys. Seeing the smiles on the faces of the students, parents and teachers was life affirming and changing.

Exit Microsoft, cue the next chapter of my life: Room to Read (roomtoread.org). I founded the NGO with the goal of replicating that scene in Bahundanda thousands of times in low-income countries elsewhere, so that children – both boys and girls – could be the first in their family to gain literacy skills and a habit of reading from a young age. 

Much has changed in the past 15 years since Room to Read was founded. Co-founders Erin Ganju and Dinesh Shrestha, our global team and I are on the cusp of reaching our 10 millionth student through our holistic literacy and girls’ education programmes. We work in 10 countries – seven in South and Southeast Asia, and three in sub-Saharan Africa. The organisation has been fortunate enough to be widely supported in Hong Kong since its humble beginnings.

Just as a parent loves all their children, I love all the countries in which we operate. But Nepal still holds a special place in my heart as the country that showed me the path to a more meaningful life. It's also a country that is incredibly near and dear to the people of Hong Kong – some of whom have visited Nepal and even more of whom live and work alongside Hong Kong's large Nepalese immigrant population.

Tonight as I jump on the Dragonair flight, I think about what lies ahead – schools turned to rubble, destroyed homes, loss of hope, and over a million children being forced to learn in temporary learning centres, or "tent schools".

The government of Nepal estimates the recent earthquakes destroyed over 32,000 classrooms. The job ahead will be big. We know from our experience working in post-tsunami Sri Lanka that the best way to help children is to return them to a sense of normalcy – which for kids means school.

So phase one for us will involve making sure the teachers in the tent schools are well-trained in trauma relief, and are well-stocked with books. To date, our team has put over 500,000 books into these schools, and another wave lies ahead.

In phase two, now that emergency relief efforts have subsided, we are eager to help communities rebuild their education systems. We have identified the first 66 government schools we will rebuild and repair.

I look forward to keeping our Hong Kong supporters and friends updated on my trip to Nepal via this daily posting on SCMP.com   The job ahead is going to be tough, but I have faith in our 112-strong team in Nepal.   I have even more faith that all of us who have visited Nepal will remember the nation’s unique hospitality and view this as an opportunity to Stand Tall with Nepal.

In solidarity with Nepal,

John

PS - I will also be posting to my 379,000 followers on Twitter (@johnwoodRTR), and hope you will join us.