Thursday, June 19, 2008

Room to Read

When I was a little girl, my mom would read to me each night before I went to bed. Now this was before I was old enough to read on my own so I loved to hear each word read aloud and eagerly anticipated the stories that unfolded from the pages each book. Once I was able to read on my own, my mom would take me to the library where I would check out 10 books at a time. I could never read them all before they were due for return, (which is a problem I still have today) but I loved to have choices about what to read when I got home. Do you remember the scholastic book order forms that they handed out in elementary school? I would beg mom to let me order a few books every time the forms were sent home, then eagerly await they day that they would arrive. I loved the anticipation of discovering what story those pages held between the covers and even the smell of fresh print on paper seemed intoxicating.
My childhood bedroom had a long bookshelf that covered the entire length of one wall, directly under the windows that looked out on the roof over our front porch. I can still see the books that were stuffed in the shelves; bindings bent from folding back the paperback cover and tattered pages from reading the same stories over and over again. I had many favorite characters because I loved reading books in a series - like “Fudge” by Judy Blume, “Ramona Quimby” by Beverly Cleary, Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, and The Girls of Canby Hall (just to name a few). Although these books were read for enjoyment, they also helped developed my general love of books and learning.

Until recently, I never considered it a privilege to have access to books while I was growing up. Books were abundant in our home, our schools, and in our libraries. However, I just recently finished reading “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World” by John Wood. It chronicles the inspiring account of this one man’s decision to leave behind the corporate world to start an educational foundation called Room to Read. About 10 years ago, he was on a three week trek through Nepal when he stopped to visit a local school. While the students and teachers there were enthusiastic and welcoming, John was shocked at the lack of educational resources available to them. While reading John's book, I was frustrated when he described how the school library only contained a few books which were kept locked in a cabinet for safekeeping. Can you imagine going to the library and finding all the books under lock and key?

What started with a simple desire to bring books to a school library in Nepal has grown into an organization that provides scholarships, builds school, libraries, and computer labs in rural and poverty stricken communities. By bringing educational access to places like Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and Sri Lanka, Room to Read will empower these children to improve their lives and break the cycle of poverty. Their families, countries, and their future can be positively affected because of John Wood’s fateful decision that day to send an email to friends, colleagues, and family and ask them to donate their used books. Three things really stand out to me about Room to Read. First, almost 90% of all funds raised or donated go directly to building the education of these young children. Second, challenge grants are put in place that require the communities to provide the labor to build these schools. The surrounding community is invested in impacting the education of their children, which is why the program is so succesful. Third, (and finally), scholarships are specifically designated for young girls in these countries, so that they have a chance to succeed and impact future generations. John understands the role of women in these families - if the mother is educated then she is more likely to raise children who are also educated.

I look back and wonder how different my life would have been if I did not have access to books during my childhood. How would my elementary education been impacted? What would I have done differently with my spare time if my nose was not in a book? How would this have affected my love of learning early in life? I doubt that I would be where I am today – a high school graduate, a college graduate, a career in Petroleum Engineering. Without books in my life when I was younger, I doubt that now I would love to write in my journal, read to my daughter, or want to become a writer.
After reading this book, I realize just how fortunate and blessed I am to have been born in a country where education is not a priviledge. Young boys and girls should have the right to go to school, read books, and chose to continue their education beyond high school. I love that books opened up this world to me and I feel that John Wood is opening up this world to many other children - who would have never had the chance to open a book without his help.

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