It is the afternoon of 4th March as I head out the door to volunteer at the Room to Read Sydney Wine Gala. I am met with protests from my children, aged 8 and 6. “Don’t go Mummy, stay at home!”
“I have to go,” I counter. “We have to make sure lots of children get to go to school, just like you do…right?”
Right. With the world holding more than 750 million illiterate people over the age of 15 and 98% of them living in the developing world (www.roomtoread.org) there is much work to be done. For the last ten years, Room to Read has been delivering its model of giving people a hand up, not a hand out. By building schools and libraries in partnership with local communities, the donor dollars are going far and Room to Read is scaling faster than Starbucks. The big, hairy audacious goal is to bring quality education to 10 million children across the developing world by 2015. Tonight is about inviting investors to be a part of this global movement that John Wood, Founder and Board Chair, hopes will see illiteracy banished, just as humanity did to small pox.
Before we hear from John, special guest Bryce Courtenay takes the stage. With high animation, he is sharing with a mesmerised audience tales of his seven year old orphan self, begging his teacher to read him a book – “Please Miss, teach me to read this. I hugged the book, even though I could not understand it.” And of how that young boy exhausted that gift “..that wondrous gift, that impossible gift. It saved me,” he says with passion, “it got me out of that shithole town.” Of his scholarship to continue his studies at a better school, he stretches his arms out, bird-like, lifts his face to the ceiling and proclaims, “I was flying.”
Later that night I will find Mr Courtenay and tell him why he is forever in my heart, imprinted with a fond memory of my father. His book, The Power of One, is the only book amongst a house full of books, that I can remember my father placing in my hands and saying “You must read this book.” Mr Courtenay kindly autographs two books for me, one for each of my children. I will do for them what my father did for me and place that book in their hands when they are ready. The impact of that one book across three generations of my family hits me. And here I am, hugging the man who wrote it. The connectedness of the human experience is undeniable. We come from different lands, live our separate lives, meet, or never meet, but we are all connected.
As John Wood faces his audience to deliver the speech of his life on behalf of the millions of children this organisation is yet to serve, we wait in anticipation. Turns out that tonight, he’s firing on optimism.
Optimism fuelled by seeing girls like Merina, 15, from Nepal, saved from a life as an indentured servant and returned to a childhood she was taken from, and of the plan that will see hundreds more girls like her returned to school where they belong.
Optimism incited by 11 year old Inkta from Laos whose scholarship with Room to Read allows her to read to her parents, both mute, and also to her brothers and adored baby sister.
Optimism fed by Mr Poet, 9, from South Africa, who wrote a poem of appreciation about his library, which John recites as the young boy’s face beams from the screens above.
Optimism for the 5 million children Room to Read has served to date, and the 5 million more who are hoping that Room to Read comes to their town.
How many more Bryce Courtenays are out there, waiting for their time to fly?
With Overhead Angels taking the bite out of expenses like air travel, office space, material costs and more, he says Room to Read can do it. With local staff empowering their communities to come up with creative, cheap and cheerful solutions, he says Room to Read can do it. With 53 volunteer chapters around the world raising 1/3 of the organisation’s budget, he says Room to Read can do it. With Room to Read becoming the biggest publishing company “you’ve never heard of” he says Room to Read can do it.
Later in the night as donated auction items fall under the hammer and schools, libraries and girls’ education are invested in by the crowd, those in the room say Room to Read can do it.
As the evening comes to an end, the total amount funded is announced. More than $892,000 has been raised this one night in Sydney, thousands of kilometres from where it will eventually land. It will buy schools, libraries, girls’ education, books, bikes, bags, uniforms. It will fund the NGO workers who will partner with Room to Read to make sure the donor dollars are well spent and are doing their best for the communities, and that the girls are attending school and maintaining their studies so they will pass to the next grade. These workers will travel on buses and bikes to get to the remote communities that Room to Read serves. This money will pay for that. This money will not buy expensive land rovers or multi-storied offices.
I picture one of the girls who will benefit from the 400 years of girls’ education funded this night. How one morning soon, she will braid her hair, exchange her worn house dress for a crisp uniform, hop on the new bike parked outside her home and pedal to a place where she is no longer defined as the poorest girl, living in a small hut, but where she is a student, a scholar, tomorrow’s teacher/engineer/author/artist.
I see her raising her hand in class to have her voice heard.
I see her writing a poem about the mother she adores.
I see her pointing to the places on the atlas that she will travel to one day.
I see her playing with her friends in a cluster of happy, giggling girls.
I see her stopping by the library on her way home, maybe one of the thirty new libraries donated tonight by friends in Sydney she has never met. She will jostle her bike to fit in with all the other bikes lazing against the painted cement walls.
I see her step inside this cool haven and pass her hands across the hundreds of books that will line the shelves, mesmerized by the bright covers and overwhelmed for choice.
I see her carefully choose one, and move to sit at the desk and chairs that the donors’ money will pay for.
I see her pouring over the pages, bent over them in her haste to devour the book. She will linger over the brightly coloured illustrations, imagining something, somewhere. I see her choose another five books to borrow – one for each of her brothers and sisters to whom she will read at night.
I see her mother welcome her home, proud of this girl who does what her mother can’t.
I see her unfurl her poem from her pocket and read it to her mother because her mother cannot read.
As the guests leave, they are flushed with excitement, happy to have been a part of something wonderful. They are no longer on the outside looking in, they are on the inside looking out and will go home and tell their friends about this amazing man called John Wood and the incredible work that Room to Read is doing. Many will call in the coming weeks wanting to know more, do more. We will be so happy to take their call.
They thank us. We cannot thank them enough. They walked in as guests; they leave as heroes.
Our team is tired but happy. They have worked hours upon voluntary hours, months upon months, to make this night a success.
As I return home after midnight, and lean over my sleeping son to kiss his cheek, he half wakes to ask “Mummy, did the children go to school tonight?” I smile and whisper to him, “Yes baby, lots and lots and lots of children got to go to school tonight.”
Mihiri Udabage lives in Sydney and has been volunteering her time to Room to Read since 2008. Mihiri is busy growing up her own two little citizens of the world. Born in Sri Lanka, Mihiri feels a great sense of gratitude for the work Room to Read does there and in the region, and looks forward to contributing in any way she can.
To find out how you can stay up to date or become involved with Room to Read in Australia, visit the Chapters page on the Room to Read website or the Room to Read Australia Facebook page. You can also read an interview with John Wood on The Australian Literature Review.
You can read a review of Bryce Courtenay’s latest novel Fortune Cookie on The Australian Literature Review.
The Australian Literature Review