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Using books to break out of poverty

In 1998, John Wood was an executive at Microsoft who left for an 18-day escape to the Himalayas.

In 1998, John Wood was an executive at Microsoft who left for an 18-day escape to the Himalayas. While there, he was startled to learn that a library for 450 children had no books, and he heard something that he's never forgotten. “‘In Nepal, we’re too poor to afford education, but until we have education, we’re always going to be poor.’ And that just hit me at the gut level of being a terrible Catch-22,” he said. Wood eventually left Microsoft and made literacy in the world’s most impoverished countries his new life mission.

In his State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama outlined his education plans for students within the United States. Wood, meanwhile, is working on improving the state of education for students in developing countries. Getting more people access to books, he stresses, can dramatically affect one family's status for generations.

The author of “Creating Room to Read: A Story of Hope in the Battle for Global Literacy," he founded the organization called “Room to Read.” It’s now America’s fastest-growing non-profit to promote worldwide literacy.

“I thought, why not do for the poorest parts of the developing world what Andrew Carnegie did for the U.S?,” he said, referring to the American industrialist and philanthropist who expanded public libraries across the country. “It pays dividends for millions of people, generation after generation after generation.”

The United Nations reports that there are 775 million people around the planet who can’t read even at a first grade level.

Worldwide, “Room to Read” has helped construct more than 14,000 libraries and 1,500 schools. They’ve distributed more than 12 million books, benefiting more than 7.8 million kids. The organization also pays special attention to increasing literacy among women.

“Two-thirds of those out of school are women, and two-thirds of those who are illiterate are women,” said Wood. He claims their programs helped about 20,000 girls go to secondary school and beyond. When a woman in a family has access to books and education, the family’s overall income rises and their overall health benefits. “Educated women are twice as likely to vaccinate their children,” he said.

At this point, the organization is still relying on books rather than digital readers. "Four hundred kids get reached with a $5,000 library,” said Wood. “So that’s about $12.50 per child served to get them not only the library and the books, but also to train teachers and train librarians, the adults who can work with them. We’re not Luddites but we’re also a little bit skeptical that there’s a magic wand that technology can wave. Sometimes low tech is much more cost-effective in the long run.”