Global Reading: Eliza Woloson

For many of us the book “Oliver Twist” was just a mandatory read in grade school. For a small village in Indonesia, it was one of three prized books in their “English library” as Eliza Woloson, founder of Global Education Fund, discovered about nine years ago.

“I remember specifically the three books,” she said, referring to the torn half copy of “Oliver Twist,” a high school economics books and a copy of a book about President Suharto.

Studying as an anthropologist, Woloson was staying in a small remote area of Indonesia studying the indigenous people when she was invited to view this library that filled the locals with pride. After this experience, she went on to found the nonprofit Global Education Fund in 1998, which distributes books, with the help of many volunteers, into the hands of some of the most vulnerable children in the world.

The Global Education Fund provides books for orphans between the ages of seven and seventeen. According to the statistics on the organization’s Web site: After age seven, it is unlikely that an orphan will ever be adopted; and children’s books are virtually nonexistent in orphanages.

Prior to studying in Indonesia, Woloson had spent time in China. “When I lived in China for a year, I had brought a number of books with me and all the kids would come knock on my door and ask to read them,” she said. When Woloson returned from China, she worked as a special events coordinator at The Tattered Covered Book Store, where she made “connections” that would serve well for starting the organization.

All of these experiences set the stage in leading Woloson to eventually find she wanted to give books to children who otherwise could not find access to them. Because of the impact Indonesia had on the birth of the organization, she wanted that locale to be the first project. “But because of the political situation and the cost of travel, we decided to make Nicaragua our first project,” she said.

So, she organized the sending and delivery of books to a cluster of orphanages in Nicaragua. About the impact after the first delivery, she said, “I’m an anthropologist; I’m trained to doubt, to constantly ask questions. But when I went to Nicaragua and asked one boy to tell me about the books, his eyes lit up. He had never had these types of resources there. He showed me his favorite books.”

These books not only allow children to read, they can also provide hopes and dreams. “This little boy told me he dreamed of being an author,” Woloson said. And she said that as he pointed to the back flap of the book to the author’s picture, he told her, “That should be me.”

She also said that when the little boy told her, “Books allow me to visit places I would never have the chance to go,” that the anthropologist in her was convinced this was a worthy project. “I thought this was a small amount of effort,” she said. “The books were donated, the labor was volunteers …”

So that the right books get into the right hands, the organization conducts “needs assessments” around the world to determine who needs what and where. “We first listen; we have to know what types of books and in what languages,” Woloson said. “In Spanish-speaking countries, we only send books written in Spanish. Or in India, we found that it was science books that were requested. One of the blunders in the history of international aid is not listening to the needs of the community.”

This year India is the recipient country of the book deliveries. There is a woman there, Suman, Woloson explained, who volunteers and helps with the literacy programs for the children. “She is an advocate for kids in bonded labor. She takes them in; these are kids who were slaves in a stone quarry. There is one girl, 11 years old, who started “working” there at the age of four carrying stones on her head. She is shrunk in size, and has neck problems because the stones pushed her neck down. Her survival is phenomenal. But she is uneducated.”

Suman houses the children and rehabilitates them — rehabilitation that includes “empowerment and literacy.” (Click here to watch a powerful video about children learning to read in India:

“Literacy is a tool for empowerment,” Woloson said. “It is a tool for reenergizing the kids and building a community.”

This year Kenya will undergo a needs assessment and in 2008 the children will receive their books. Thailand or Nepal is on the agenda for 2009. It is organized, Woloson said, so that it is systemically done to ensure the most success.

Global Education Fund has developed and supplied books to 53 literacy centers in 21 countries, delivered more than $1.5 million in books and services, and has served more than 16,000 children since 1998.

To fill the gap between books donated and books needed, the Global Education Fund purchases books at a discount. Once books have been collected at the Global Education Fund headquarters in Boulder, Colorado they are shipped to the orphanages.

Woloson credits the success of the organization to the volunteers, which includes the local people, heads of the various orphanages and Peace Corp volunteers within the recipient countries who conduct needs assessments and then ensure the books reach the hands of the children; they also then teach the children to read. “I can’t reiterate enough,” Woloson said, “how grateful I am to so many volunteers who have donated so generously.”

Other volunteers include book companies who donate hundreds and hundreds of books, the people who send in checks to buy books and the many volunteers in the home area of the organization in Colorado. There is also Izze Beverage Company, a major partner with Global Education Fund, which provides the book trailer that collects the books from schools while also educating the children about the orphanages.

And while continuing the core piece of the foundation (assessing and distributing), Global Education Fund is also looking to give scholarships to children in orphanages for continued education programs. Woloson is hopeful of what is still yet to be accomplished.

“When we educate the children in the orphanages,” Woloson said, “they are more likely to become contributing members of the community.”

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