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Room to Read Japan ~Delivering Books and Education to Asian and African Children~

©Room to Read

Ms. Reiko Imao of Room to Read Japan

In September’s Close Up, we introduce the activities of Room to Read. Founded in 2000 by former Microsoft Corporation executive John Wood, Room to Read is an international non-profit organization that works to deliver books and education to the children of developing countries. With its philosophy of “World Change Starts with Educated Children,” through the numerous support programs it conducts in Asian and African countries, Room to Read aims to both nurture literacy skills and realize gender equality in education, etc. On this occasion, we were fortunate enough to speak at length with Ms. Reiko Imao of Room to Read Japan, both about what led to the organization’s establishment and the activities it now undertakes.

Q. Please tell me about what led to the establishment of Room to Read.

A. Room to Read grew out of an episode experienced by John Wood, who was then a Microsoft marketing executive, when he was vacationing in Nepal. During his travels in the country, he struck up an unexpected friendship with a Nepalese man, who then proceeded to guide him on a visit to an isolated elementary school. On visiting the school’s reading room, John was shocked to find that the only books on hand were a few volumes that had been left behind by passing backpackers. What is more, in that those few books were considered far too valuable, they were kept under lock and key, out of the hands of the children. After hearing the school principal’s lamentations that “they were so poor that they couldn’t afford books,” upon returning to the United States, John began to approach his friends and to encourage them to “donate any books that were no longer being read.” The result of these efforts was that in the following year, he was able to deliver some 3,000 books which he had collected to rural Nepal. What is more, in believing that he had discovered his true calling in life which was to work to deliver books to impoverished children, John retired from Microsoft and in 2000 established Room to Read along with a co-founder.
Room to Read’s activities, which commenced by supporting the literacy education of Nepalese children, subsequently expanded to other countries throughout Asia and Africa. Accordingly, what also developed throughout the world was a network of support volunteers. Here in Japan a volunteer team was also founded in 2007 by an American and Japanese couple who were deeply impressed by a book written by John Wood. Then in 2010, Room to Read Japan was established as the Japanese arm of the Room to Read global network.

© Room to Read © Room to Read

On the left is John Wood, shown delivering some 3,000 books to Nepal.
On the right is the Japanese translation of his book,
“Leaving Microsoft to Change the World,” which helped establish Room to Read Japan.
© Room to Read

Q. Please tell me about Room to Read’s activities.

A. Room to Read is currently “delivering books and education” in ten Asian and African countries. Meanwhile, it is said that some 790 million people are illiterate worldwide, or approximately one in every ten individuals on the planet. Since being established in 2000, our organization has provided both locations and opportunities to learn to some 10 million children in developing countries. Furthermore, in that our mission is to break the cycle of poverty through the provision of education, the two pillars which underpin our activities are “Literacy” and “Girls’ Education.”

Q. Could you please explain how you undertake your literacy programs?

A. Initially, so as to create spaces where books may be read, we work to construct libraries, reading rooms and school classrooms. Next, as activities that help to create resources, we undertake the development of teaching materials. When Room to Read commenced its operations, the organization started by donating English books that had in turn been donated to it. However, in that obviously the children who received those books couldn’t read the language, it was understood that the libraries to which such English books were donated were not being utilized. At the time, some thought was given to possibly launching collection activities that targeted children’s books written in the local languages of the countries where Room to Read was operating, however, it was soon realized that there were almost no suitable books being published in such developing nations. Thus, a decision was made that Room to Read would develop its own children’s books and educational materials. From then began a process of seeking out local writers and illustrators, and publishing books both compatible with the children’s ages and cultures. The books also had to be interesting enough that children would feel a strong desire to read them. Furthermore, Room to Read has conducted teacher training so as to promote the even more efficient acquisition of literacy skills by children. Thus, through such literacy programs, we have pushed forward with our activities along the three axes of “creating locations,” “developing teaching materials” and “nurturing teachers.”

© Room to Read © Room to Read

In colorfully decorated reading rooms where the furniture matches the stature of the children,
the shelves are lined with books written in the children’s native language.
© Room to Read

Q. Please tell me about girls’ education.

A. Some sobering statistics that attest to the grim reality of girls’ education are that of the 790 million illiterate people worldwide, an estimated two-thirds are women. What is more, some 90% of them live in developing nations. While even small girls might somehow manage to attend an elementary school and receive the most rudimentary education, when it comes time for them to attend a junior or senior high school, hurdles that seem bent on preventing them can dramatically appear. For example, a greater priority might be given to helping in the home, or education might be abandoned because long commutes between home and school are considered too dangerous. Even before such hurdles arise, however, in some societies there are more than a few parents who feel that “education is not necessary for girls.” By way of responding to such matters, so that female students may go on to attend junior and senior high school, Room to Read offers a program of support that is both multi-faceted and long-term in nature. For example, among the support we offer, we engage in the dispatch of mentors who we refer to as “social mobilizers.” These are women who have both received an education and achieved a degree of social independence. Accordingly, they can advise female students who live in their hometowns, and offer academic and moral support and advice based on their experiences. Furthermore, in that such girls themselves also have their own ideas, so that they may determine their own futures based on their own decisions, in addition to what is taught to them by school curricula, Room to Read is also enhancing life skills education through the inclusion of subjects such as critical thinking and presentations, along with debating, etc. Through such means, in our girls’ education programs, we are active along the two axes of “supporting girls so that they can complete secondary school” and instructing them so that they can “develop skills to negotiate key life decisions.”

© Room to Read © Room to Read

While acting as leaders, female mentors from the same hometowns as students also offer them moral support.
Programs that are designed to help female students to “develop skills to negotiate key life decisions” are also conducted.
© Room to Read

Q. It seems that Room to Read’s activities are expanding at a phenomenal pace.

A. Concerning the objective set when Room to Read was founded of “providing both locations and opportunities to learn to some 10 million children by 2020,” it was achieved five years ahead of schedule in 2015. As to why our organization could clear that objective in just 15 years since establishment, one reason is that John Wood and the other founders all have business backgrounds. Thus, when developing Room to Read, they held a very strong position on the need to grow quickly. Furthermore, each of them was highly conscious of the costs issue, and that sentiment was coupled with a thoroughness with respect to using the donations received as efficiently as possible and maximizing utilization. What is more, with respect to the reading rooms and schools constructed, they have been monitored on an ongoing basis to see if they are being used effectively. When they are not, improvements are made immediately. Moreover, Room to Read uses two cyclic frameworks, one of which is for the quality improvement of its programs. The other encourages supporters to donate based on trust that is generated by having the results of our activities published in an easily-understood numeric format. I feel that both of these cycles working well is linked to the growth of Room to Read.

Q. Please tell me what you hope to achieve in your future activities.

© Room to Read

A. The next objective that Room to Read has set for itself is to “provide both locations and opportunities to learn to some 15 million children by 2020.” As a strategy that shall help us achieve the objective, there is the following idea: Concerning countries where we are not currently active, by proactively packaging our know-how as “technical support” and providing it to those non-profit organizations working in support of education, Room to Read believes it will be capable of offering its support quickly to areas where needs exist. Moreover, as part of such a strategy, we are currently conducting pilot programs on a trial basis in Indonesia and Grenada, etc.
Furthermore, as Room to Read Japan, in this country we are also hoping to expand the “Students Helping Students Program,” an initiative that has met with great success in the United States and other countries. It is a program in which students attending school are given the opportunity to undertake charity activities so as to support children of their own age in countries throughout Asia and Africa. Last Year in Japan, John Wood was welcomed to an elementary school in Setagaya Ward where he gave a guest lecture. The result was that the school’s students and their parents organized their own “Charity Reading Marathon” and collected donations. Throughout Japan’s schools as well, much is being done to encourage students to look beyond our shores. So that children themselves may come to believe that “there are also things that they can do,” here at Room to Read, we also hope to proactively create opportunities in order that more and more people can learn about us.

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