Sunday, October 12, 2008

Instilling love of literacy

Organization sets up libraries worldwide

Elaine O'Connor
The Province: Sunday, October 12, 2008

A book can be an escape. Or a life line.

That's why the global literacy charity Room to Read, founded in 2000, has founded more than 5,100 libraries in the developing world. Its focus is breaking the cycle of poverty and illiteracy by instilling in children a love of reading and learning.

The charity was born after former Microsoft executive John Wood took a trip to Nepal in 1998. He'd planned to push his limits on a three-week hiking trek. Instead, he visited a school that pulled his heartstrings. It had 200 students and 30 books. He vowed to change that. So he came home and changed his life, leaving Microsoft to found Room to Read.

The charity aims to reduce the number of illiterate people in the world -- an estimated 770 million, two-thirds of them women and girls -- one book at a time.

That little Nepalese school now has 3,000 books. And Wood has written his own book, Leaving Microsoft to Change the World.

That's how Kitsilano's Sharon Davis got involved. After reading the book she'd bought for her husband, the former financial adviser and community literacy volunteer knew she had to help.

"I read the book and was hooked," she says. "If you can't read and you can't write you are just going nowhere in the world today. Even if you are poor in Canada you can still go to school, you can still go to a library; none of those things cost money. If you're in Nepal or India, school is not a given; you have to pay to go. In Nepal, there literally were no children's books, we had to start a publishing program. The need is just so much greater there. I really believe [Room to Read] will change their lives."

Davis, 53, became the charity's Vancouver chapter leader in the summer of 2007. Her team of 14 held their first fundraiser in February at UBC and raised $250,000.

Early next year, UBC, UVic, UNBC and SFU students plan to host the Live-in for Literacy campaign, where students pitch a tent and live in school libraries for ten days to raise awareness of and funds for Room to Read. UBC students raised $5,000 through their library camp-in last year.

Room to Read works in Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Laos and, most recently, South Africa and Zambia.They not only fill libraries (with English and local language books), they build them -- and schools too. They also publish books, build computer labs and provide girls with scholarships.

In Nepal, where they first started,they've established 1,728 libraries, built 169 schools, 31 computer labs and placed 764 girls on scholarships between 2000 and 2007.

In total, Room to Read has built 442 schools, published 2 million books in 226 new local languages, donated more than 2.2 million English-language children's books, funded 4,036 girls' scholarships and created 155 computer labs.

Many donations come from corporations, foundations and private donors. But children are making a difference to. Room to Read's Students Helping Students initiative sees youth from all over the world raise money for books -- in 2005, 200 schools in the Western world raised $400,000 to create libraries in Sri Lanka.

To learn more visit To fundraise for the Vancouver chapter or to set up a new B.C. chapter, e-mail