One organization, millions of children educated

Two years before the turn of the millennium, John Wood, Microsoft’s then director of marketing, went hiking in Nepal. He visited a small village with dilapidated schools and no books for the children to read. Upon returning to the States, Wood organized a giant book drive and returned to the schools with thousands of pages ready to be poured through.

For areas such as Nepal, however, learning to read is not easily achieved. In addition to the lack of resources – often being the books themselves – the dependence on labor in impoverished cultures often mitigates young children, especially women, from remaining in school.

When Wood returned from his trip, he saw his deed as only an immediate solution for one school on one mountain in the Himalayas in one country. It was not enough. At the peak of his corporate career, Wood, age 35, left Microsoft and began a grassroots nonprofit that would soon change the world of education from the inside out.

Room to Read is an intimate organization that includes a giant umbrella of volunteers from Europe, Africa, Australia, Switzerland, India and Asia. It not only delivers books to communities throughout Indonesia and Africa – all of which are published in regions’ local languages – but engages and partners with schools, village leaders and governments to ensure there is funding and resources for well-trained teachers and aids, libraries and librarians and even the schools themselves.

“Engaging in your mother tongue is what really helps you become academically connected,” said Room to Read Central New Jersey Chapter Leader Ranjana Rao while sipping an iced chai beside her fellow chapter leader Sarah Branon, who taught English and history at Stuart Country Day School for 25 years. Both women are local to Princeton.

Rao, like many of Room to Read’s 60,000 volunteers and staff, has a business background as well as a degree in public policy. She was raised in India and had the fortune of attending good schools but understands there are many children who cannot.

“This was a natural fit for me – too perfect to be true. We’re solution providers, and if there is a problem we will solve it. Most of us in the West could never imagine what these girls go through daily. Our problems are insignificant in comparison,” Rao said.

On Sept. 11, Room to Read will host “A World of Music” at Princeton High School’s Trego-Biancosino Auditorium to help support its cause. Acclaimed Princeton musicians, from the PHS all-female vocal ensemble Cloud Nine to local poet Carlos Hernandez Pena, will take the stage. For information about the concert, visit, contact Rao at, or check

“It’s a great teaching moment for our students here. Both in private and public schools – letting our kids know how lucky we are,” Rao said. “We are all global citizens. I think it’s really helping children see and be exposed to something that will actuate change. It makes me feel empowered.”

Since Wood co-founded Room to Read with Erin Ganju in 1998, the organization has exceeded it goals of reaching 10 million children by 2015 and now aims to affect 15 million by 2020.

“We are scaling this issue,” Branon said of bringing education into the lives of young women and children. “It’s go big or go home.

Room to Read’s progress in monitored through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and annual reports are posted on its website so anyone can follow their headway transparently.

The books Room to Read publishes are often illustrated by artists living in the areas they are brought to. The organization has also, since its inception, ignited a movement to encourage young women to continue learning throughout their lives.

“In many of these countries, girls will go to grade school but then drop out by the time they’re in their early teens to work at home, act as a secondary caregiver or even be married,” Branon said. “Since our program started to help these women stay in school, it has had a 95 percent success rate, with many of the women succeeding, rather competitively, and being admitted to college.”

In every town Room to Read works with, there is a Saheli – which means “friend” in Hindi – to help the young women in the program. These women, according to Rao, are the “change agents at a grassroots level.” They work with the parents, the villages and the local governments solely to support girls in attaining a better education.

Both Rao and Branon spend their time and energy in this movement. They connect with local residents, students, businesses and corporations to provide education for more students globally.


About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida