About a year ago, one of my coworkers told me that she volunteered at this place that built schools overseas. I thought that was pretty cool, but then I didn't think too much else about it. Then one day we were looking through photos of a trip she took to Cambodia and Vietnam a few years ago. She told me the trip was through the company she volunteered with, and that part of it involved touring the schools the company help finance. Again, I thought that it was a great thing, but I still didn't completely realize how amazing the company was until I read the book she loaned me: Leaving Microsoft to Change the World by John Wood, who is the founder of the company she volunteers for, Room to Read. And now I'm very glad to say, I finally get the importance of this company and the work it's doing.
John Wood was trekking in Nepal when he visited a school's library. But it didn't look how we would imagine a library to be. It was empty, save for a few outdated books locked up in a cabinet because they were so valuable. He vowed right then to send books to this country to fill the library. His local guide said that many travelers before him had made such promises, but no one had ever followed through. But John did. He contacted his friends and relatives, received tons of donations and worked through the logistics of getting the books over there. And that was just the first step.
Probably the most amazing part of this story is that John had never worked in a nonprofit before and had never really seen himself in this role. He was first and foremost an entrepreneur and used his knowledge from Microsoft to create a successful company. But in many ways, he was just like any of us: an ordinary person who had a goal, did everything he could to meet the goal, and just happened to change the world because of it.
Over the years, the company has expanded out of Nepal and into Vietnam, Cambodia, India, and other countries. It has helped finance schools, libraries, computer rooms, and scholarships for girls. (One of the central workings of Room to Read is that each project must have local support---the company provides a challenge grant, which the community needs to meet financially and/or through providing labor and supplies to meet their goal.)
They've partnered with publishers to create bilingual books and books relating to each specific culture. Even though they didn't know how they were going to do it (both staff-wise and financially), they responded to the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka with a pledge to build schools there. The donations came in and they found the staff devoted to do the work, and they were one of the first companies to respond to the disaster with a future investment to the community.
One of the reasons Room to Read is so successful is that donors can see exactly where their money is going. For a certain amount of money, they can adopt an entire school and even visit the school once it is constructed. And throughout the book, Wood continually stresses how important education is to the growth and health of a community, its country, and our world. The personal stories he tells in the book are uplifting and enlightening, both those of the students who have benefited from the programs and the donors themselves.
If you are interested in learning more about Room to Read, I'd recommend reading this book (it really is inspiring) and visiting their website. They take monetary donations but they do not take book donations from individuals (they have found over the years that new book donations from publishers work best for their needs).
Next book up: The End by Lemony Snickett