Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Room in their Hearts

A bone thin, wide-eyed little girl tapped on the window of Rebecca Sullivan’s Honda CRV and signaled for food by touching her fingers to her lips. Rebecca felt a tug in her heart.

But the scene was nothing new for this Australian expatriate. After 10 months living in Mumbai, all her car’s windows bore the dusty fingerprints of child beggars who dart in and out of the chaotic traffic every day. Even her two young daughters had grown accustomed to the cupped hands of Indian children peering inside with equal parts curiosity and despair. Yes, such heartrending episodes were beginning to feel normal for the Sullivan family.

Looking back, she calls it her “car window moment,” the moment in which Rebecca knew she had to do something to help.

“I saw the great need for me to make a contribution to the people of India—the country we had chosen to call home for the coming years—and to show my own small children what it means to make a social contribution and how we as a family can play a part in helping,” she says.

Rebecca needed to find the best way to make a difference. She had the desire to help. She had an educational background in business and years of work experience in Project Management and Finance. How could she make use of her strengths to give back? What would her Mumbai calling be?

In November 2009, Rebecca got her first hint.

Laura Entwistle, a Canadian expat and current President of the American School of Bombay, lent Rebecca a book by John Wood called Leaving Microsoft to Change the World. The memoir describes how a trek through Nepal inspired Wood to quit his high-flying Microsoft career and establish the NGO Room to Read, which promotes education and literacy in nine of the world’s poorest countries. Mrs. Entwistle spearheaded the Mumbai chapter of Room to Read and encouraged Rebecca to consider joining the chapter.

Rebecca’s interest was piqued, but there was more. She soon learned that Room to Read does not run like most non-profit organizations. This NGO operates on a unique business-like model, by concentrating on low overheads and high sustainability and efficiency. John Wood’s story and his work struck a chord with Rebecca. She saw how her business background and her desire to help the children of India could both be engaged with Room to Read.

“Room to Read believes that world change starts with educated children and that all children deserve access to quality education. The vision resonated so strongly with me, and the results-driven, scalable, focused nature of Room to Read, which runs like a finely tuned business, led me to ask how I could be more involved. I was amazed, impressed, and excited. I was hooked!” Rebecca exclaims.

The Room to Read business model is a success. In just ten years, the non-profit has reached the lives of four million children and plans to more than double that amount by 2015. The developing world has gained over 1,000 schools, more than 9,000 libraries, nearly 200 computer labs, three million donated English language books, and over four million local language books thanks to Room to Read.

Rebecca Sullivan now co-leads the Mumbai chapter of Room to Read with Laura Entwistle and Yuti Dalal. With the help of nine dedicated volunteers, the chapter raises awareness and funds in the Mumbai community. Their events and social functions connect Room to Read with individuals, corporations, foundations, and schools interested in providing education for children in the developing world.

For the Mumbai chapter, promoting literacy and gender equality in education throughout India is the main objective. According to the United Nations, India is home to over 269 million illiterate people, a shocking thirty-five percent of the world’s illiterate population. Making matters worse, about 52 percent of Indian students—the majority of which are girls—drop out before completing secondary school.

“Room to Read focuses on establishing libraries and building the capacity of teachers to encourage the habit and joy of reading. We also publish high-quality, illustrated reading materials for young readers to respond to the dearth of appropriate children’s literature, especially in rural India. And our Girls’ Education Program helps disadvantaged girls complete secondary school so they can develop the skills needed to negotiate life decisions. This includes slum dwellers, migrant workers, child laborers, girls without parents or guardians, Dalit and tribal girls, girls who are physically challenged, and girls living in very remote and rural communities,” Rebecca explains.

In India alone, 3,200 libraries have been established. Over 2,000 girls have been awarded education scholarships. And over 600,000 local language books—in Hindi, English, Garhwali, Rajasthani, and Telugu—have been distributed to schools. In just five years, there is no doubt that Room to Read India has substantially impacted its target communities.

Room to Read maintains sustainability by coaching local communities to bring about change. Rebecca clarifies: “Our model is one of empowering the local people to work to create change. Room to Read does not rely on people from outside the community coming in to help with the project work in the needy communities. Instead, we ask the village residents to build the schools; we rely on teachers who grew up in the countries where we work; and we hire local staff to implement our project work in a given country.”

Have you had your “car window moment?” Do you think you’d like to be a part of this amazing organization?

The Mumbai chapter of Room to Read welcomes volunteers with backgrounds in event planning, event management, communications, and PR, though anyone with a go-getting attitude is encouraged to participate.

Visit Room to Read online at http://www.roomtoread.org for more information about volunteering, donations, and employment in India and around the globe.

Written for Shetizen Journalist: http://www.shetizenjournalist.com


  1. hey,
    i was readin ur blog n have few questions for u about visa, cuz my husband work there n embassy wanna give me only turist visa. can u contact with me? e.marszalek@hotmail.com

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  3. Very nice article. Rebecca realized truth after sometime, however her helping nature attracted us.

    Being human, Rebecca attracted all.



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