With the highly literate population and top-notch educational resources in Westchester County, it is easy to be lulled into thinking that learning to read is an inevitable childhood rite of passage. Yet, child literacy still eludes many developing countries, especially remote, rural communities. Comprised of volunteers, the Westchester chapter of Room to Read is trying to change this child literacy imbalance.

Online at www.roomtoread.org, Room to Read is a global, nonprofit driven by the vision that “World Change Starts with Educated Children.” Former senior executive at Microsoft, John Wood founded the organization in 2000 after a transformational trekking experience in Nepal, where he visited local schools and was struck by the scarcity of books in school libraries despite children’s immense enthusiasm for reading.

Since 2000, Room to Read has made a difference in the lives of more than 5 million children in nine countries across Asia and Africa by providing better access to higher quality educational opportunities. This is accomplished through a network of libraries and schools, local language children’s books and a girls’ education program. Room to Read aims to reach 10 million children by 2015.

Carine Verschueren started the Westchester Chapter of Room to Read in the fall of 2010 when she returned to Westchester after four years in Japan, where she was an active member of the Tokyo Chapter. A Belgian native, Verschueren holds a master’s degree in international relations and has worked in finance. “I feel incomplete when I don’t have a good book to read, so it was inconceivable to me that books and reading could be out of reach for so many children in the developing world,” says Verschueren. “I felt I needed to personally do something to change this.”

The fledgling group quickly drew in Karen Regan, a former president of the Junior League of Westchester on the Sound, as a co-leader of the Westchester Chapter. Regan brings a wealth of fundraising experience to the table. She explains, “I’ve spent many years supporting women and children in the area, and when Carine spoke to me about helping children’s education in developing countries, I knew this was the natural next step for me to take.”

The Westchester Chapter adds to an existing network of 53 volunteer chapters worldwide that collectively bring in one-third of the operating budget of the organization. At its public launch, the group held a Beers for Books event at Molly Spillane’s in Mamaroneck on February 10, 2011. For every beer sold, Molly Spillane’s donated $1 to Room to Read’s Local Language Publishing Program. The event raised enough funds to purchase more than 600 books for children in developing countries.

The group also organized a talk at the Rye Free Reading Room on May 9, 2011, by Kall Kann, survivor of Cambodia’s killing fields and country director of Room to Read Cambodia. Kann revealed the jarring reality of children, particularly girls, in rural Cambodia whose education is typically cut short in order to help their families eke out a living. Room to Read Cambodia is bent on breaking this vicious cycle of poverty by enabling the first generation of girls in rural communities to go to school and complete their secondary education. The talk raised enough funds to support eight scholarships for girls in Cambodia to get a shot at staying in school.

Looking ahead, the Westchester Chapter plans to roll out a reading program in Westchester schools in 2012 to encourage students to read. This forms part of the chapter’s strategy to encourage area children to become social entrepreneurs. The chapter also hopes to engage Westchester parents, through their children, in supporting global literacy and gender equality in education.

“Room to Read is a [non-government organization] to watch,” says Verschueren. “We have been growing at an average rate of 35 percent each year, and the sustainability of our programs combined with the organization’s transparency and tangible results will continue to position us as a leader in global literacy and girls’ education.” The Westchester Chapter is actively seeking volunteers to grow and expand its reach in the county. Meetings are held the first Tuesday of every month.

Save the date for a luncheon with Room to Read CEO and co-founder Erin Ganju at the Larchmont Shore Club on November 16, 2011. The luncheon features a silent auction just before the holiday season. Ganju shares her unique perspective on Room to Read’s journey, from its humble origins in bringing donated books to rural communities in Nepal to a global organization empowering millions of children in the developing world with literacy and quality education.

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