Literacy warrior

Literacy warrior

Former Microsoft director John Wood has begun a new chapter in his charity work bringing books to poor children


John Wood R2R_L
Photo: Paul Yeung
When Young Post first spoke to Microsoft director-turned philanthropist John Wood, his charity - Room to Read (R2R) - was already a great success. Wood told us that his charity had opened 765 schools in Asia and 7,000 libraries in impoverished areas across Asia and Africa.

Those amenities were giving 150,000 students a chance to become literate, he said. It was a remarkable feat.

That was four years ago, but Wood has not been resting on his laurels. In the years since then, his charity has more than doubled the number of its schools to 1,627, and its libraries to 15,082, benefiting some 7.8 million underprivileged children worldwide. The goal is to reach more than 10 million youngsters by 2015.

Last week, the American philanthropist was in Hong Kong for the launch of his new book, Creating Room To Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy. Young Post caught up with him again at the Kelly & Walsh bookstore in Admiralty.

"I spoke to my colleagues, and we all think it's time to publish another book to let the world know what we are up to," he said while kick-starting the book launch.

Wood's latest book documents some of the unforgettable experiences he has had over the past few years while running the charity.

A memorable bit includes his trip to out-of-reach villages in Laos, where many children languish without books or even the chance for minimal education.

It was in the small and poor southeast Asian country that the American met a girl. "Inkham goes out to catch fish and crabs every morning," he recalled. "She has zeal for education, but she doesn't have the school fee."

Inkham's parents are both mute and the 11-year-old learned about Wood's charity from her aunt.

Thanks to a scholarship from R2R, she now goes to school, reads story books, and does her homework every day.

Yet what surprised Wood was how much the girl's family appreciated her chance to go to school. Inkham's aunt likened it to winning a kilogram of gold.

"The cost of paying for education for the girl is HK$2,000 a year," he said. "A kilogram of gold is worth more than US$50,000."

However, for children living in poverty, he noted, receiving an education carries great value. It's these encounters that make his work especially rewarding - and keep him striving for more and more.

However, despite his successes, Wood has faced plenty of difficulties while running his charity. His projects are costly and he needs to find innovative ways to persuade more and more sponsors to donate books and money.

At the same time, he needs to keep his charity's operating costs as low as possible. He leads by example. Wood flies around the world for free thanks to help from well-off friends, and many hotels let him stay for free during his travels.

The goals for his charity include promoting the local languages and cultures in poor countries. Therefore, R2R co-operates with local writers and artists and publishes their works. So far the charity has published more than 800 of their books.

In 2008, Wood helped the Education Ministry of the United Arab Emirates to promote reading to children in the seven emirates. In return for the one million books that were read in the UAE, Wood received a donation of the same number of books, both in English and local languages, to his libraries worldwide. During the campaign, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world, was used as a symbol to show the number of books being read.

Limited resources mean R2R owes its success to setting priorities right. That's why Wood's charity is not targeting the poor areas of rural China.

"The Chinese government has trillions of [US] dollars in reserve. [In contrast] where we work, the governments are very, very poor," he said.

"I just feel like if you're going to do something, you should go where you can do the greatest good. And so we chose the countries which need us more as their governments are not doing as much as the Chinese government is doing."

The philanthropist has a message to Hong Kong students: they shouldn't underestimate their power in making a difference in other people's lives.

"It's a little bit of a bubble [here]," he said, referring to the city's readily-available amenities. "It's nice for students to recognise that they can go help kids in some of the poorest countries in the world to get educated."

He also urges local students to play their part in boosting literacy across the developing world by setting up school clubs to help raise awareness about the issue.

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