Since 2006 we've been improving rural children's literacy in Asia. This is our story.
My name is Tom Stader and I’m the Founder of The Library Project. This is our organization’s story, through my eyes.
I have broken this up into four key periods from The Library Project’s journey so far.
It’s important to tell the story and understand the values we hold and what we are trying to achieve. Perhaps through our story we can motivate others to get involved, to understand that to make an impact is something that is achievable.
A simple idea. A few friends. Nine libraries.
The seeds of The Library Project were planted in 2006 with five friends who wanted to make a difference in the lives of children living in an orphanage and children’s shelter in Dalian, China. I had been volunteering on weekends at the orphanage tutoring some of the children on their English language studies. These were good kids. I also knew the headmaster personally, and was absolutely confident that whatever we decided to do would be appreciated.
We soon came up with a plan. Our simple idea was to donate a library of books to each location. Soon after, we held a used book drive at six Aston English Schools (a local educator that we were working at) in hopes of collecting a couple hundred books for each orphanage. After just one week, we had collected over 3,000 children’s books which far exceeded our expectations.
Our next step was to reach out to our friends and family who helped us to raise $500 to purchase tables, chairs, bookshelves, globes, lighting, and plants for the two small libraries. Two months later, both the Dalian Children’s Orphanage and the Dalian Children’s Shelter received beautiful new libraries that the children could enjoy daily. In both cases these tiny libraries were the brightest and most exciting room the children had to hang out in, read, and do their homework. At both locations the administration promised to keep the rooms open and well maintained. We were thrilled.
We shared photos and stories with those who donated books and money and thought, “mission accomplished”. We had achieved our goal and our simple plan was now a reality. Something amazing happened though, people kept donating small amounts of money for more libraries.
As these little unsolicited donations were coming in, I decided to move from China to Vietnam. By this time I’d lived in Asia for five years and had been moving on average every six months. You could say I was restless; looking for my place in Asia. Once I started my new job and had settled into my new home, I formed a new group of friends that continued donating small libraries in our free time. Our next library went into a busy primary school in District 4 of Ho Chi Minh City. We donated 200 newly purchased Vietnamese language children’s books to this small school. This was an important step forward, in that we were began to focus on quality of books (new) and not just the quantity of books (used).
After each library donation we would send more photos and thank you emails to those who financially supported us; and as before, after each email more money came in and soon we were able to to support seven additional library donations in Vietnam. Over the course of the year, we impacted one primary school, four orphanages, a rural HIV/AIDS clinic and a rural woman’s shelter. This simple idea was growing through the kindness of others. More importantly, I was recognizing the great need that was out there.
At the end of 2007 I received an email that would change my life. It was from Kevin Kruse, a serial entrepreneur from the USA, who heard about our small venture and expressed his interest in donating a substantial amount of money. He understood that this simple idea had potential to grow into something with a real potential to impact children’s literacy on a much larger scale than I had previously thought. Like all things, there were strings attached to this potential donation. Firstly, he wanted us to use his funds not to donate libraries, but to create a “real” organization. Secondly, he wanted us to develop clear and solid programs. And finally, to my own surprise, I needed to quit my job and work on The Library Project full time.
The last requirement was a tall order. I had a good job and was quite comfortable and going full time on a charitable start-up would take me out of my comfort zone completely. With that said, I also recognized this was a once in a life-time opportunity. Offers like this do not come around every day.
Soon after receiving Kevin’s offer, I quit my job and dedicated myself 100% to what would become The Library Project.
Founding an organization. Back to China. Twenty-four libraries.
The first thing I did was create a small Board of Directors composed of close friends. This group was a big help with budgeting, legal matters and governance; three things I knew very little about. They also were composed predominantly of entrepreneurs, people who understood what it meant to build companies and knew the questions to ask. Without this group I would have been lost.
The next few months were a whirlwind of activity. I remember sitting in a coffee shop in Bangkok with a few members of our Board trying to come up with a name for our organization. Hours later we hit on “The Library Project.” We soon purchased the website address, went to a restaurant for dinner, and celebrated the creation of our organization.
We were then offered a free office in Xi’an, China. We had very little money left, so a free office was too much to pass up. That month I packed up my things in Vietnam, boarded a plane, and found myself moving to Xi’an. We then hired our first employee and began looking for schools that were in need of library donations.
What we found was surprising; the primary schools we were visiting had huge libraries. Thousands of books, but these books were largely useless. For example, the books we found were very old and not age appropriate for the children in attendance. Also, these libraries were behind lock and key, with children not allowed access to the few books what were age appropriate.
So, why did these schools have libraries that were largely useless? It’s quite simple. Each school had a quota for the number of books that should be found in their library based on their student number. For example, ten books per student. This was largely an arbitrary number that changed from school to school. This expectation put the administration at these schools in a difficult position. They needed to comply with local government regulations, but they also had to balance their already underfunded school budgets. Because of that, the administration went out and purchased the cheapest books they could find, locked the door to the library, and walked away.
With this information we saw a clear need for quality age appropriate children’s books in these schools that the children could actually read.
We ended the year with twenty-four beautiful library donations. These were gorgeous libraries. The children absolutely exploded when they walked into these rooms filled with bright child friendly tables, inviting chairs and kid sized shelving packed with fun age appropriate books. The teachers and local government were also impressed by the professionalism that we were showing.
I ended the year incredibly proud, tired and feeling as if I’d made the right decision to start The Library Project.
Taking risks. A very special school. Finding focus.
Our celebration of our 24 library donations was short lived. When returning to the previous year’s library donations we found that over 50% were not being used regularly. We were devastated.
On top of that, we felt that our libraries were not going into schools with the “greatest need.” We were definitely making an impact, but not in the schools that we wanted to support.
That’s when we decided to take a risk, with very little money in the bank, we hired our second employee, Belinda Yu. She was an educator, understood the local education system, and began working with us on fixing the problems we faced. The first thing we did was reach out to communities that were well outside of our comfort zone (both geographically and logistically).
In March we found ourselves five hours outside of Xi’an, on top of a mountain, standing in a school that had the kind of need we were all looking to support. The Liu Lin Primary School was a mud and brick building with 60 students and eight teachers. Within five minutes of being there and seeing the shape the school was in, I had promised the Principal that we would return with a library. How we would actually do that was still unknown.
I remember walking through the school being overwhelmed by two opposing feelings; happiness and anger. Happiness because we had found a school that we absolutely knew we could make an impact in; the children would definitely benefit from a library donation. Anger because this school was beyond anything I could have ever imagined still existing in 2009.
People talk about this “divide between rich and poor.” This idea that there is an arbitrary line that divides our world in two. People talk about it like it’s this crack in the road that someone can simply step over if they work hard. I remember standing in this school thinking about how we have all been lied to. There wasn’t a divide between the rich and poor; there was a canyon.
My final thought was how unbelievably over my head I was. I had very little money, two employees to somehow pay at the end of the month, and I’d just promised these people a library.
Then, I walked into one of the school’s six classrooms and saw my team working with the children; I was blown away. Belinda was standing at the head of the classroom asking the children what kinds of books they would like to read, what their favorite subject was, and what it was like living in their village; she was doing all this with grace, empathy and courage. I remember thinking, “I can’t do this, but my team can.” That moment defined my leadership style going forward. My role from that point forward at the organization was clear, it was to provide my team the space to build the best organization that they could.
When I got back to my hotel that evening I sent out an appeal for donations with a photo of the school attached. By the time I woke-up that next morning the library was fully funded by a group of friends. I was blown away.
A month later we returned to Liu Lin Primary School with a small library. This school was not easy to reach. We had to take a train, a van, then a second van, a boat, then hike up a winding mountain trail. It was a journey. I remember being in the boat looking at all this stuff asking, “How are we going to get these boxes and shelving up to the top of this mountain?” My team just laughed and said, “Wait.”
As our boat pulled up to the base of the mountain, a group of thirty students were waiting for us. The older students had baskets on their backs that we filled with books, the younger students each took a handful of books, and we all walked up the mountain. It was incredible. The children were building their school library.
This tiny library of 600 local language books integrated right into the corner of one of their classrooms. It was by far the brightest part of the classroom. The children (literally) jumped out of their seats and ran toward the shelves tearing into the books; the teachers were getting very angry at how pushy the children were acting. We all just sat back laughing at the scene.
Later that day our team conducted our first Teacher Training Course. This was something we developed that year. This simple 15-minute course changed our organization’s programmatic results. We went from a 50% failure rate to 8% overnight. To this day we have maintained an 8% failure rate. Failure is a good thing. As our programs and training improve, our bar also gets raised for what we consider a successful library. It keeps us on our toes and pushes us to improve programmatically.
This tiny school library donation showed me what we at an organization could achieve. We left Liu Lin Primary School energized and focused. We ended 2009 with 69 additional library donations, each better than the previous.
We had truly gone from a simple idea to an organization that had real reach, real scale and real impact into the lives of children and communities in need.
One million books. Killer team. Literacy.
Fast forward six years, The Library Project is a very different organization. Geographically, we’ve expanded to Cambodia and Vietnam. Our plans are to reach out to additional countries in the coming years. We are dreaming big.
Our programs have stayed razor focused on rural literacy though the donation of local language libraries. We still provide beautiful libraries, but our focus is on getting kids to read more, providing teachers with the tools to be the best teachers they can be, and being a support for the teachers when they need help using their libraries. This is what we do. This is what we will always do.
Our in-country teams are 100% local hires. They are still empowered to build the best organization they can. This has served us well, especially with our International expansion, because each country is subtly different. These subtle differences define culture and make each country special. Each library at its core is the same, but they look different and function differently in each country. This will also never change.
In April 2015, The Library Project Team donated their one-millionth book. I’m incredibly proud of this milestone. Our team are donating on average one library every day, and in September 2015 they donated an amazing 69 working across three countries. As a comparison our team is donated the same amount of libraries in one month than we did in the entire 2009 calendar year. This is a testament not only to our ability to scale, but also the continuing need throughout the countries we are operating in.
We have unbelievable partners that support us. This is an amazing group of donors, volunteers, representatives, Board members, local governments and partner NGOs. I’m humbled every day by the energy they give to us freely so that we can improve rural literacy in the communities we serve. We need more partners because without them and people like you, we would not be able to make the small change that these children deserve. Contact us anytime to discuss getting involved, how a donation will be used, and what kind of impact you can expect.
In closing, the kids and teachers we work with are the reason we do what we do. They are the reason why we all give so much of ourselves everyday. To date, we’ve impacted over a half million students and teachers. Our short-term goal is to impact one million children. We are just over half ay there. We need your help.
Thank you for reading. I invite you to get involved. Reach out anytime, we are always available.
Founder of The Library Project
Help us make a difference, one book at a time.