Kathmandu, April 25
John Wood has come a long way since filling the empty school library at Bahundanda, Lamjung, with about 1,000 books in 1999. The school library project started in April 1998 when he met Pashupati, a school administrator administering 17 schools in Lamjung, on the second day of his 18 day ‘classic trek’ of the Annapurna circuit.
He tagged along with the school administrator to a school in Bahundanda which had 400-plus students and a library without books, except for a handful of unreadable ‘castoffs’ left behind by trekkers and backpackers.
He pledged to help, but school teachers and the headmaster were skeptical that he would. Many had promised to ‘come back and help’, but were never to be heard from again. “Perhaps, sir, you will someday come back with books,” the school headmaster told Wood as they shook hands. Return, he did.
At the end of the trek, he wrote to his friends around the world to help him find books for a school library in the remote hills of Nepal. His plan was to collect about 200, but he ended up collecting 3,000-odd books.
The books were shipped to Nepal. Yaks and ‘donkey train’ were employed to carry the books up the donkey trail to Bahnudanda and schools near and far.
The year 1999 was a turning point for Wood. He decided to quit Microsoft and his girlfriend broke up with him. Relations with a bunch of people he mistook to be friends were severed and so were ties with the bosses at Microsoft .
Aged 35, Wood was all by himself, except for supportive parents who told him to follow his heart. A voracious reader since early childhood, he set up Room to Read that year. He believed that world change started with educated children.
In the years that followed, he has been able to make an impact on the lives of more than 12 million children worldwide.
Room to Read has built and supported over 20,000 libraries in 14 countries, including Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
As many as 5,000 libraries have been set up in Nepal alone. One was opened only yesterday in Lamatar, coinciding with his mother Carolyn Wood’s 87th birthday. For this, Wood donated the proceeds from his books.
“We wanted to have something special for April 24,” Wood said. “We dedicated the library to honour my dad who passed away in June 2017, about four months before Room to Read opened its 20,000th library in Cambodia.”
The 10,000th library was set up in Nepal and he was here when it was opened in 2010.
When Room to Read was formed, the idea was to match rich American Andrew Carnegie’s legacy. Carnegie had set up 2,500 libraries across North America towards the later half of his life. Wood wanted to be ‘the Andrew Carnegie of the developing world’ and he became that within the first few years of setting up Room to Read.
Room to Read has eight times more libraries than Carneigie’s. The target for year 2020 is to make an impact on the lives of 15 million schoolchildren, making Room to Read ‘the Microsoft of non-profits’.
Will it ever stop? “No, it will continue to grow and grow,’ said Wood. “Businesses in Nepal should also engage and help the cause.”
A version of this article appears in print on April 26, 2018 of The Himalayan Times.