Now this is a man to emulate. What a man! what a hero.
ONE of the legendary triumphs of philanthropy was Andrew Carnegie’s construction of more than 2,500 libraries around the world. It’s renowned as a stimulus to learning that can never be matched — except that, numerically, it has already been surpassed several times over by an American man you’ve probably never heard of.
I came here to Vietnam to see John Wood hand out his 10 millionth book at a library that his team founded in this village in the Mekong Delta — as hundreds of local children cheered and embraced the books he brought as if they were the rarest of treasures. Wood’s charity, Room to Read, has opened 12,000 of these libraries around the world, along with 1,500 schools.
Yes, you read that right. He has opened nearly five times as many libraries as Carnegie, even if his are mostly single-room affairs that look nothing like the grand Carnegie libraries. Room to Read is one of America’s fastest-growing charities and is now opening new libraries at an astonishing clip of six a day. In contrast, McDonald’s opens one new outlet every 1.08 days.
It all began in 1998 when Wood, then a Microsoft marketing director, chanced upon a remote school in Nepal serving 450 children. Only one problem: It had no books to speak of.
Wood blithely offered to help and eventually delivered a mountain of books by a caravan of donkeys. The local children were deliriously happy, and Wood said he felt such exhilaration that he quit Microsoft, left his live-in girlfriend (who pretty much thought he had gone insane), and founded Room to Read in 2000.
He faced one challenge after another, not only in opening libraries but also in filling them with books that kids would want to read.
“There are no books for kids in some languages, so we had to become a self-publisher,” Wood explains. “We’re trying to find the Dr. Seuss of Cambodia.” Room to Read has, so far, published 591 titles in languages including Khmer, Nepalese, Zulu, Lao, Xhosa, Chhattisgarhi, Tharu, Tsonga, Garhwali and Bundeli.
It also supports 13,500 impoverished girls who might otherwise drop out of school. In a remote nook of the Mekong Delta, reachable only by boat, I met one of these girls, a 10th grader named Le Thi My Duyen. Her family, displaced by flooding, lives in a shabby tent on a dike.
When Duyen was in seventh grade, she dropped out of school to help her family out. “I thought education was not so necessary for girls,” Duyen recalled.
Room to Read’s outreach workers trekked to her home and cajoled the family to send her back to class. They paid her school fees, bought her school uniforms and offered to put her up in a dormitory so that she wouldn’t have to commute two hours each way to school by boat and bicycle.
Now Duyen is back, a star in her class — and aiming for the moon.
“I would like to go to university,” she confessed, shyly.
The cost per girl for this program is $250 annually. To provide perspective, Kim Kardashian’s wedding is said to have cost $10 million; that sum could have supported an additional 40,000 girls in Room to Read.
So many American efforts to influence foreign countries have misfired — not least here in Vietnam a generation ago. We launch missiles, dispatch troops, rent foreign puppets and spend billions without accomplishing much. In contrast, schooling is cheap and revolutionary. The more money we spend on schools today, the less we’ll have to spend on missiles tomorrow.
Wood, 47, is tireless, enthusiastic and emotional: a motivational speaker with no off button. He teared up as girls described how Room to Read had transformed their lives.
“If you can change a girl’s life forever, and the cost is so low, then why are there so many girls still out of school?” he mused.
The humanitarian world is mostly awful at messaging, and Room to Read’s success is partly a result of his professional background in marketing. Wood wrote a terrific book, “Leaving Microsoft to Change the World,” to spread the word, and Room to Read now has fund-raising chapters in 53 cities around the world.
He also runs Room to Read with an aggressive businesslike efficiency that he learned at Microsoft, attacking illiteracy as if it were Netscape. He tells supporters that they aren’t donating to charity but making an investment: Where can you get more bang for the buck than starting a library for $5,000?
“I get frustrated that there are 793 million illiterate people, when the solution is so inexpensive,” Wood told me outside one of his libraries in the Mekong. “If we provide this, it’s no guarantee that every child will take advantage of it. But if we don’t provide it, we pretty much guarantee that we perpetuate poverty.”
“In 20 years,” Wood told me, “I’d like to have 100,000 libraries, reaching 50 million kids. Our 50-year goal is to reverse the notion that any child can be told ‘you were born in the wrong place at the wrong time and so you will not get educated.’ That idea belongs on the scrapheap of human history.”
But I am afraid in the western world, this is what is already happening with libraries closing left right and centre.