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Fostering literacy in developing nations from communities like Kelowna

Pat Nelson, here with a Nepalese children
Pat Nelson, here with a Nepalese children's book,is a Room to Read volunteer who founded a chapter of the organization in Edmonton and is looking to start one in Kelowna
— image credit: Jennifer Smith

There are people who have book smarts and then there are people who excel on the ground, in the trenches so to speak, and the latest Room to Read initiative lands somewhere in between.

Conceived of by a Microsoft executive while he was travelling, Room to Read creates libraries, sponsors students and funds culturally sensitive and language-appropriate books for children in developing nations.

"We strongly believe that every child, no matter where they were born or what circumstances they were born into, deserves to receive an education and reach their full potential," said John Wood and Tim Koogle, board co-chairs, in a letter opening the organization's annual report.

It was a book by Wood on founding the organization, entitled Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, that inspired Pat Nelson to found a chapter in Edmonton and now she is hoping to do the same in Kelowna.

"I'm a librarian. I had a daughter who was getting an education and the whole idea of how poor the kids in the developing world were, and the fact that they had no access to literacy, really got me," she said.

Listening to a CBC panel on Africa recently, she said it really struck her how the number one recommendation the panelists made to help change the continent's seemingly unending strife was "education." It's a refrain she's noticed again and again since starting to volunteer with Room to Read.

"There is a definite correlation between education and health, and indicators like lower infant death rates," said Nelson. "…And the difference with Room to Read, as opposed to other organizations that work in this area, is that over 80 per cent of the funds raised go directly to programs."

On the ground, this means that any local chapter has to come up with fundraising initiatives that are not costly to produce. From beer nights to a Nights of Arabia fundraiser she organized in the Edmonton library—a thematic wine, cheese and speaker's presentation—Nelson has come up with some crafty ideas in her four years with the organization.

And perhaps one of her more ingenious is the current partnership she's struck with Crystal Flaman, of the Frank Flaman Foundation.

Crystal is an endurance athlete and social entrepreneur who has completed 100-kilometre runs for charity and organized epic trips like a tandem ride across the country with her twin to raise money for the Heart And Stroke Foundation. Her mission is "to assist individuals and organizations to strive to not only be the best in the world, but also the best for the world" and Nelson is hoping her participation will jump-start the Okanagan effort.

The Flaman Foundation, named in honour of her father, entrepreneur and philanthropist Frank Flaman, has helped support development projects and charitable efforts in countries around the world and right here at home, including Room to Read.

Joining a chapter of Room to Read basically amounts to becoming a part of the fundraising engine.

Room to Read sponsors girls who might otherwise be sold into indentured labour as a child bride. It builds libraries, with an agreement from the government of the country receiving the donation that it will provide the librarians to run it. And it finds local authors to pen stories in different languages and cultural contexts than one might conjure in North America.

Room to Read has won the UNESCO Eucation, Scientific and Cultural Organization's International Literacy Prize and received a rating of 67.18 out of 70 on Charity Navigator's evaluation, one of the best ratings awarded by the American non-profit evaluator.

The first meeting will occur on Saturday, March 23 at 10 a.m. on the second floor of InVue, 2040 Springfield Road. Anyone interested in getting involved is asked to contact Nelson at the.pj.nelson@gmail.com

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