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Improving the world, one book at a time

Courtesy photoRoom to Read builds libraries and reading rooms in several developing countries, such as this one in Nepal. The group's local chapter is holding a fundraiser Saturday in Snowmass Village.
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ASPEN – Susan Lodge wasn’t really looking to launch another philanthropic effort when she encountered and befriended Kathy Hegberg on a hike to Fryingpan Lakes in fall 2008.

But Hegberg had just returned from a trip around the world that included a glimpse at life in some of the most impoverished countries. She was seeking a meaningful way to get involved in an international relief effort, especially one involving kids.

The two Basalt residents teamed to create the 41st chapter of Room to Read, a nonprofit created by former Microsoft senior executive John Wood to promote literacy and education of children in developing countries.

Lodge was intimately familiar with the nonprofit after previously starting a chapter while her family lived in Tokyo. Based on her description of Room to Read’s mission and accomplishments, Hegberg knew it was exactly the endeavor she wanted to assist.

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“There is so much poverty yet kids are so eager to learn,” Hegberg said.

The organizations list of accomplishments since it was founded in 2000 is heartwarming: 9,220 libraries or reading rooms built or established, mostly in small villages in rural areas; 1,129 schools constructed; more than 4 million books printed in children’s native languages; and more than 4 million children reached by one program or another. That’s in the first decade. The goal is to reach 10 million children by 2020.

About 2,500 libraries were built by Room to Read in Nepal alone and another 210 are planned there in 2010, Lodge said.

The strength of the organization is low overhead, Hegberg said. It funnels nearly all contributions straight to its causes because it relies heavily on volunteer fundraisers at its local chapters throughout the world.

“For me it was a model that was very efficient and gets the money to the villages where it’s needed with little waste,” she said.

Room to Read doesn’t enter countries and dictate how to run the facilities. It hires local staff for the schools and libraries, figuring they know the local needs best. And it typically requires the villages it helps in Asia and Africa to contribute to projects through challenge grants that require dedicated space, labor, materials or a small cash contribution.

Hegberg and Lodge launched the Aspen Valley chapter of Room to Read last July in a fundraiser that featured an appearance by Wood, an Aspen Institute fellow who was in town for Aspen Ideas Fest. The event raised $205,000.

The chapter’s second fundraiser will be an apres-ski event from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27, at the Viceroy Hotel in Snowmass Village. It features cocktails, music by Slightly White and a short presentation about Room to Read’s accomplishments and goals. Tickets are $50 for adults and $25 for teens. Kids under 12 can come in for free.

Tickets can be purchased in advance at http://www.roomtoread.org/SSLPage.aspx?pid=572.

The chapter founders consider the event more of a “friend raiser.” They want to collect money for the cause, but they also want to get people involved in the goal of reducing illiteracy. Aspen High School student Nelly Weiser heads a group of students there that has helped raise funds for the local chapter. Lodge and Hegberg hope to get all schools and libraries involved in contributing to facilities in foreign countries. The idea is to come together as a community to help another community, Lodge said.

“We’re not just raising money. We’re not just having parties. We’re raising awareness about illiteracy,” Hegberg said.

Donations can go to Room to Read’s general fund, or donors can earmark specific programs, such as scholarships for girls to attend school, publishing a book or possibly helping with a school in a specific country.

More about the organization can be found at http://www.roomtoread.org.

scondon@aspentimes.com


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