The gift of reading

I find it difficult to imagine childhood without books. My father read to my sister and me often, if not every night. I grew up with shelves of books near at hand in my own room, books all over the house, and with a library within easy walking distance (less than a mile on foot, though by car it was further) where I could get lots more books.

Perhaps I would have learned to enjoy the company of my peers more if I had not had the far more interesting company of books. (Or perhaps I would simply have been a very unhappy child.) I did play outdoors sometimes, generally by myself, or sometimes with my sister. But by far my favorite activity was reading.

I have, on a few occasions, been a visitor in a house where reading material is virtually nonexistent. As a child, I once spent a week as a guest of a family that lived in a trailer park, and I think the only book in the house was the one I brought with me. It was summer vacation, the parents both worked, and the children (at least four of them) spent the day watching TV, eating bowls of cereal, and getting into fights with each other. I spent my time reading Watership Down and waiting for the interminable week to end.

I know there are people who just are not bookworms. No doubt our family would be healthier if we enjoyed participating in sports or other physically demanding activities the way some families do. (I do enjoy walking and hiking, and my husband enjoys racquetball, but we haven’t had much success in finding others to engage in these activities on a regular basis. I tried to learn racquetball but I really don’t like it much; my husband has never been a big fan of walking and a back injury made it a poor choice of exercise for him.) But I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for children whose parents do not model for them the joy of exploring new worlds and ideas between the covers of a good book.

As a matter of fact, my husband and I love books so much that we have to avoid going to bookstores. If that sounds odd, consider how little space there would be left in our house, or money in our bank account, if we purchased all the books we see in stores that we would like to own and read. As it is, our bookshelves are overflowing with books purchased since we moved here, and there are boxes and boxes of books that we decided we simply couldn’t buy more shelves for.

You can imagine, then, my interest when I learned about the nonprofit organization Room to Read. I learned about it from an article in the New York Times, linked to by a friend on facebook. Since 2000, Room to Read has established over 12,000 libraries in developing countries, distributed 10 million books, and benefited an estimated 5.6 million children. It’s not just about giving children books, either – it’s about teaching them to read and to develop the habit of reading.

Room to Read also focuses on giving girls as much opportunity to get a good education as boys have – a lack in many of these countries. Since such efforts run counter to traditional ways in many places, I am pleased to see that Room to Read works in collaboration with local communities and makes a point of having local staff and partnerships so that their programs fit the culture.

One reason I’ve long thought of Heifer International as a great nonprofit to support is because it helps gives people the resources to improve their communities through sustainable agriculture. Other nonprofits that help people overcome poverty are those that provide microloans. And one reason that the work of charity:water is important is that it not only gives people safe, clean water, but it also frees up time for children to get an education (instead of spending hours every day fetching water from a muddy stream).

But I’d never thought much about the impact of providing books for people in developing countries. My mental image of such places didn’t include books, other than some kind of primer for teaching reading in school, and a few basic textbooks. (And the Bible – I did, after all, at one time plan to be a Bible translator.) Books for children are fairly rare in many places, not just because they cost money but because they’re not even being written.

Room to Read is working to fill this void with their Local Language Publishing program. They select local writers and illustrators to develop new, culturally relevant books. Competitions and workshops help promote literacy, as well as providing writers of the quality desired for the books to be published by this program. By the end of this year, Room to Read will have published well over 500 original titles, in 25 different languages.

I’m sure you are bombarded, as I am, with requests to donate to a wide variety of organizations. I try to stick to a few and not let the others guilt me into giving reluctantly, or simply into feeling guilty for not giving. But this is one nonprofit I’m adding to my list now, and I will admit to writing this blog post, in part, in the hope that you will consider doing the same. You can give in honor of a loved one at Christmas, give quickly and easily through paypal, or even create your own fundraiser.

 “A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.” (Henry Ward Beecher)

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