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Room to Read co-founder on trip that sowed the seeds of charity 20 years ago, and the schoolchildren, especially girls, it has helped

John Wood, then a Sydney executive, was appalled when he visited a school in Nepal on holiday and saw only three books there; he returned with 3,000, and helped set up an education charity that has reached 12.4 million children in 20 years

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2018, 8:15pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 May, 2018, 9:52pm

Madhu’s world came crashing down one morning when her father summoned her and said, “There is no need for you to go to school any more”. The 15-year-old asked why, even though she already knew the answer: “Because a girl’s place is in the house and you are wasting your time in school.”

When her parents started pressuring her to get married, Madhu’s dreams of finishing her education and getting a job seemed to have come to an end. She would be no different from most of the girls in her village in the Indian state of Rajasthan, where more than half of the female population is illiterate.

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In a village in the Bardiya district of western Nepal, 16-year-old Parbati began another day of housework with a heavy heart. Parbati had moved in with her aunt after her mother’s death. With the responsibility of doing all the housework, she was barely able to keep up with school and tired all the time.

Then she heard about kamlari – an illegal, yet common practice in parts of Nepal under which children become bonded labourers, sold into lifelong slavery to repay their families’ loans. Was she a kamlari, too?

Madhu and Parbati’s stories are commonplace. Tens of millions of girls like them in developing countries have their dreams crushed by poverty, antiquated customs and societal norms.

We have been described as the most influential children’s book publisher that you’ve never heard of
John Wood

Fortunately for Madhu and Parbati, their story didn’t end there. Both were able to change their lives thanks to Room to Read, a global charity that is transforming lives by helping girls complete secondary school and by promoting reading among primary school children.

The seeds for Room to Read were sown in 1998 when John Wood, a Sydney-based marketing executive at Microsoft, headed to Nepal for a three-week trekking holiday in the Himalayas. While there, Wood visited a local school and was appalled.

“There were about 80 children crammed in a single room,” says Wood. “The school library was an empty room that was completely devoid of books.”

There was a locked cupboard in the back with just three books inside – a Danielle Steele romance, an Umberto Eco novel and a Lonely Planet travel guide – he says.

The schoolmaster’s parting words, “Perhaps sir, one day you will return with some books”, stayed with Wood after he returned home. A year later, as director of business development for Microsoft’s greater China region, he was back leading a pack of six donkeys laden with 3,000 children’s books he had collected from friends and family.

I love to read all the time
Anju, seven, Dehradun, India

Wood soon quit Microsoft and, together with Dinesh Shrestha and Erin Ganju, founded Room to Read in 2000. Today, the organisation operates in 15 countries, has reached 12.4 million children, established libraries in more than 20,000 schools, trained tens of thousands of teachers and librarians, and distributed more than 20 million children’s books including, 1,614 original Room to Read titles in 24 languages.

“We have been described as the most influential children’s book publisher that you’ve never heard of,” says Wood.

The organisation has 13,600 donors, 16,000 volunteers and 1,600 employees, and collaborates with local communities, partner organisations and governments through two core programmes – the Literacy Programme, which empowers primary-school children to become independent readers, and the Girls’ Education Programme, which supports girls to complete secondary school.

Madhu and Parbati are among the 56,000 girls whose lives have been transformed by the girls’ programme. Trained social mobilisers – women who act as role models, mentors and advocates – work in secondary schools to help the girls become aware of their own potential and the opportunities that await them. They are helped to develop the skills they need to take charge of their lives – self-awareness, interpersonal skills, problem-solving, critical thinking and coping with stress.

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Some 57 per cent of Room to Read’s employees are women. “Many companies have women-in-leadership initiatives. At Room to Read, we do something radically different – we simply have women in leadership, including our CEO,” says Wood proudly.

Madhu enrolled in the programme and met Aruna, her mentor. “Didi [older sister] listened to my problems, encouraged me and guided me,” says Madhu.

When Madhu’s parents pulled her out of school, Aruna worked with Madhu’s teachers to intervene on her behalf. Initially rebuffed, the school community persisted until Madhu’s parents relented and she was able to return to school.

Eight years later, Madhu is the first girl in her family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree and is currently awaiting the award of her master’s. Now 23 years old, Madhu is a social worker.

“Finishing school was the turning point in my life,” says Madhu. She is now following in Aruna’s footsteps, working as a social mobiliser for Room to Read, where she mentors 50 girls in three schools. “I’m determined to encourage and guide the girls I’m looking after until they recognise their true self and fulfil their dreams,” says Madhu.

Parbati still works hard at her aunt’s home, but knowledge gained from her life skills sessions helps her communicate effectively, cope with stress and punch through daily challenges. She is now an eighth grader and dreams of becoming a doctor.

“I read about this profession in my vocational class. I was intrigued by the stethoscope that doctors wear around their neck. I will not stop until my dream comes true,” she says.

The other thrust of Room to Read, its literacy programme, focuses on developing the skill and the habit of reading in primary-school children. It provides training to early grade teachers in government-run rural schools focused on the five critical components of phonological awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension.

I will not stop until my dream comes true
Parbati, 16, western Nepal

The organisation also trains educators in how to manage a library and conduct activities that encourage students to read independently.

“We make sure that we are creating a child-friendly environment – this means a comfortable floor, desks, chairs, brightly coloured walls, sufficient lighting, ventilation, open shelves, and the books at a child’s eye level. It’s about making reading fun for children,” says Sourav Banerjee, country director for India.

The literacy programme has started a tradition of literacy in millions of families, such as that of Kusuma, a daily wage labourer in Dehradun, capital of northern India’s Uttarakhand state. Kusuma, 35, grew up illiterate and still remembers the moment she wrote her name for the first time.

With tears of joy rolling down her face, she had hugged her teacher – her seven-year old daughter, Anju.

A grade-two student, Anju insists on attending school regularly, although she is often late after helping her mother with household chores, which her teacher understands. The school library has played a particularly crucial role in helping Anju break the family tradition of illiteracy. “I love to read all the time,” says Anju.

Room to Read’s global literacy programme has now impacted 10.7 million children, and 40 per cent of those assessed in programme schools are reaching the target reading fluency of 45 words per minute by the end of grade two.

Asked what has made Room to Read so successful, Wood says he learned many valuable practices during his time at Microsoft that he has emulated – setting bold goals, being data driven, having an intense focus on results, and being transparent to stakeholders.

He believes the charity’s success comes down to three factors – a scalable model with data-rich measures of impact, financial efficiency (84 cents of every dollar raised goes directly towards programmes), and upfront involvement and co-investment by local governments and communities.

Room to Read has been recognised by independent charity evaluators for its sound fiscal management, and commitment to transparency and accountability. It is ranked 13th in the annual Top 500 NGO rating by NGO Advisor and has attained the top four-star rating 10 years in a row from Charity Navigator.

These ratings are important, as they serve as a reference point for large corporate donors. In 2016, Room to Read raised almost US$50 million from donors. Wood is extremely grateful for this significant support, but also notes a point of frustration.

“Sometimes potential donors say that we have become so big that we don’t need their support. But in order to sustain existing programmes and to scale further, we need as much support as we can get. There are still 263 million children on our planet who cannot read or write.

“To me, it’s not about being big versus small. It all comes down to: can you create impact at scale, because if you can’t, then we’re not going to solve these problems in our lifetime,” says Wood.