On a Mission to Improve Literacy: Room to Read

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Looking to volunteer? Like Reading? You might want to consider Boston’s Room to Read () Chapter.

I chatted with Boston’s chapter leader, Barb Heffner, about the organization and what drew her to it.

First, a bit on the organization: it was started by John Wood, author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, in 2000 after a whirlwind career at Microsoft. Upon a visit to Nepal, John’s eyes were opened to the state of disrepair of literacy across the globe. In fact, it is estimated that globally more than 60 million school-aged children lack access to education and may never learn to read or write. Today, Room to Read operates in 10 countries across the world – Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Laos, Nepal, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Vietnam and Zambia. To date, Room to Read has distributed 11.5 million books since 2000. Nearly 9 million books were checked out of Room to Read libraries in 2010.

You may have even seen Room to Read profiled in the documentary Half the Sky. While the special aired on PBS, all donations were matched for a week. The organization raised a few hundred thousand dollars from the campaign. It costs just $250 per year to educate a girl in the developing world, meaning those funds will go a long, long way.

Barb became involved with the organization in 2006 after reading John’s book. Formerly, Barb was a PR executive, co-founding CHEN PR in 1996, but these days, Barb spends much of her time running the 300-person Boston chapter. Until Barb had read John’s book, she understood illiteracy in the abstract sense – that many children in the developing world don’t have access to U.S. caliber books and libraries, but the book brought this issue to light in a concrete way.

Since childhood, Barb has relied on books to spark her imagination and open her eyes to other parts of the world. She is quick to tell you how important reading is to her. She feels that by a twist of fate, she was born in a country where education is a given, where she could go to a library and take out countless books, finish high school, go to college and eventually earn a master’s degree. Barb believes paying it forward is a great way to show appreciation for her education, which she credits with making her a better Mom.

Before diving in to the charity, Barb first did her research. She learned Room to Read consistently gets top marks from leading charity evaluator Charity Navigator. In fact, earlier this year, Charity Navigator awarded Room to Read 4 stars (the top rating) for sound fiscal management and commitment to accountability and transparency. It’s the sixth year in a row the organization has garnered this award – a recognition that only 3 percent of rated charities can claim.

While Barb is still motivated to get books into the hands of young readers in the developing world, but she is equally passionate about the organization’s Girls’ Education Program. In fact, one of her favorite quotes is from Madeleine Albright: “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate population (793 million) are girls and women. According to the World Bank, the single best investment we can make in the developing world is to educate girls. When you educate a girl, you educate succeeding generations. It is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty in the developing world. More than 17,800 girls participate in the Girls’ Education program and last year, the advancement rate for girls in the program was 97%. One such girl is Dao Ngoc Phung, a 14-year-old girl in Vietnam whom Nick Kristof wrote about eloquently last November.

As for what’s next for the organization, John Wood’s next book, Creating Room to Read, will be released on February 7, 2013 by Penguin. John plans to visit Boston on his book tour sometime next year. Plus, as a partner of 10×10, a social action campaign focused on girls’ education, Room to Read will be actively involved in promoting the launch of the feature film, “Girl Rising,” in Spring 2013. Room to Read also plans to host several “Beers for Books” events over the course of 2013 – events hosted at local bars, geared toward students and young professionals. For $1, attendees can buy local-language books under Room to Read’s Book Publishing Program, plus bars usually donate $1 per drink purchased that evening.

If you are interested in learning more or getting involved, you can find information on Facebook, on Twitter at @roomtoread_BOS or email boston@roomtoread.org.