Before young Kall’s parents died they had ingrained in him one thing: “No matter where you are, make sure you go to school.” Not until age 20 was he finally able to follow through on his parents’ wishes — and he stayed in school until he turned 35.
The Khmer Rouge was known for its extreme hostility to education, which had a detrimental effect on Cambodia it is still recovering from; this is one of the main reasons we decided to launch Room to Read there. Keenly aware of what happens when children are denied an education, Kall has been an invaluable champion of education in Cambodia as Room to Read’s country director for the past six and half years. He firmly believes that with a quality education many of the deep-rooted issues Cambodia still suffers from can be solved.
First Lady Michelle Obama during her visit to Siem Reap last April meets with Room to Read’s Girls’ Education Program participants.
Thanks to Kall’s leadership and our local staff, our programming in Cambodia has grown by leaps and bounds. In fact, earlier this year our work in Cambodia was recognized by First Lady of the United States Mrs. Michelle Obama and First Lady of Cambodia, Mrs. Bun Rany. (Read more about this exciting trip and the girls who inspired these first ladies).
Room to Read Co-founder and Director of Field Operations Dinesh Shrestha
For those who know me, Get Stuff Done— aka GSD — is the clean version of this saying, which I lifted from my old boss at Microsoft, Steve Ballmer. It’s about getting the job done no matter what the obstacles may be. Yes we set bold goals and hire passionate people, but those passionate people need to be action-oriented and innovative problem-solvers to navigate around challenges and not see them as barriers to success. I often say that action is better than talk.
Let me tell you about one man I’d like to single out for his supreme ability to GSD: our co-founder Dinesh Shrestha. During the early years of our work in Nepal, Dinesh acted as our non-paid country director while still working his day job with the United Nations’ World Health Organization.
On weekends he’d drive for six hours followed by three hours of trekking steep mountain paths to visit our first few schools and libraries. To me this is the definition of having an action-oriented work ethic. Now at about the time we were patting ourselves on the back for our work in Nepal, we discovered through program evaluators that students were not using the libraries as much as they could. Our libraries had a lack of local language books for the children to read — a common problem in low-income regions. Why? Because the for-profit publishers have little incentive to publish children’s books in languages spoken by poor people. It’s an age-old problem that causes the poor to remain poor — without education, there is a much more difficult path out of poverty.
Dinesh told it to us straight: there was no reason for publishers in Nepal to produce children’s books for a population that couldn’t afford them. But even as Dinesh explained the problem to us, he was already coming up with a solution — to publish our own Nepali language children’s books using local authors and illustrators.
Thanks to his GSD attitude and Room to Read’s entrepreneurial spirit, within a few months we had enough manuscripts and funding to publish 10 Nepali-language titles. Since then, we’ve published over 1,100 original children’s book titles in 27 languages — including Nepali, Sepedi, Kiswahili, Lao and Tamil. Every book is created by local authors and illustrators we helped develop and train. The local language books we publish benefit children like little Ntokozo in South Africa who struggled to learn how to read until he picked up a book published in his mother tongue.
Thanks to Room to Read’s publishing efforts, little Ntokozo can learn to read in his mother tongue.
We have since won more than 20 book awards that attest to the quality of our local language children’s books, including the UNESCO Confucius Prize for Literacy, which acknowledges Room to Read’s contribution to children’s book publishing. (Read a story about our book publishing).
With every project we commit to we’re creating a partnership with a community that is also engaged. This can mean the community is providing contributions in time, money and labor, or it can be parents who show their commitment to educating their children, or the local mentors — social mobilizers we hire to work directly with the students in our Girls’ Education Program. It ensures each community has ownership in a project and that they’re part of its success!
And Mulenga, an alumna from our Girls’ Education Program in Zambia I met when she was 16 years old. With the community behind her — including her social mobilizer and our supportive staff — Mulenga graduated high school and I just learned that she is currently in her third year at the University of Zambia, pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in education! Mulenga is now giving back to that supportive community by acting as a role model for the younger girls currently enrolled in the program, providing motivational talks to them and their parents to demonstrate that they too can accomplish their dreams.
And a student named Shabnam from India. She has been an extraordinary catalyst for girls in her community who a few years ago wouldn’t have dreamed of going to university.