April 1, 2011

Agenda Magazine: Opening Eyes in Rural China

The children who grow up in China’s rural communities may never be able to see the rest of the world, but Tom Stader of The Library Project knows that exposure to books can make a world of difference to them. This is why he founded The Library Project in 2006. In the past five years, they have established more than 350 libraries in rural areas, providing more than 100,000 young minds with access to educational material.

Agenda caught up with Stader in anticipation of their April 17th fundraiser to learn more about his organization, and how others can help improve the livelihoods of China’s poorest children.

What is the Library Project?
The Library Project donates books and libraries to under-financed schools and orphanages in China. I started The Library Project four years ago in Xi’an with our country director, Jenny Wang. We both wanted to create an organization that had a simple mission; to improve the education that children receive living in rural China through the donation of small libraries to the schools they attend. As of today, The Library Project has donated 352 libraries to rural elementary schools located in 21 provinces throughout China. Over a quarter-million Chinese-language children’s books have found their way into the hands of over 100,000 eager young readers.

Today, The Library Project has a full-time staff of five based out of Xi’an, China. Over the next three months, these five people will be donating 80 libraries throughout China. Amazingly, that is almost one library a day! With that said, our team will not be alone in the donation of these libraries. Hundreds of volunteers and donors will be lending a helping hand, coming from almost every province in China to help make a difference. Without the help of so many, we would not have been able to improve the education that over 100,000 children receive every day.

How did you start in this project?
The Library Project began four years ago as a simple idea to donate a library to two orphanages. I asked my friends and family for financial donations to purchase tables, chairs, shelving and a globe for each orphanage library. After donating the libraries, I sent photos and stories of the completed libraries. Those photos were then passed from friend to friend and family member to family member, who saw the results and also wanted to make a donation. Soon we were receiving so many donations that I had to quit my job and start doing it full-time. It’s been an amazing four years.

What was the biggest challenge?
Honestly, The Library Project has had very few challenges over the past few years. This amazes most people when they hear it. I think they expect it to be almost impossible to do charity in China. I think it has been so easy because The Library Project tries to engage as many organizations as possible with the donation of each library. We get the local government involved at the regional and county level, the local government charities, the local communities, the school board, teachers and students. The Library Project then donates each library with their support, along with the support of our donors and volunteers. This model has helped us donate 352 libraries–as of today–to 21 provinces throughout China. It’s incredible! I’m very proud.

What inspires your work?
I really enjoy working with my team. They are an incredibly inspiring group of people, and I feel that our work has a great impact on the lives of the children. Looking back on my childhood, reading was so important.

Tell us your favorite success story.
I remember donating our fist library to our first truly rural elementary school. There was such an incredible difference in the educational infrastructure from the time we arrived to the time we left. Everyone in our team was so proud, tired, and excited.

What does your day-to-day life look like?
Wow! Now that is a question! My day-to-day life changes quite dramatically on any given day. One day I’m sitting in our offices in Xi’an working with our team on the 80 libraries we plan on donating in the next three months. The next day I’ll be in Shanghai walking into boardrooms introducing HR managers to The Library Project and explaining to them how their employees can get involved in improving the education found in rural elementary schools. The following day I might be handing books to a school filled with children. It can be a bit of a roller coaster ride.

What advice would you give other young people looking to start a charity in China?
Keep it focused, don’t give up, and find the absolute best people you can as employees Also, engage the government at the very beginning; this will make a world of difference in your ability to fulfill your mission.

How else can people support The Library Project?
The Columbia Alumni Association is hosting a charity event on April 17 at the Kro’s Nest in support of The Library Project and the Japanese Red Cross. This is an annual event that they hold for their “Columbia Community Outreach Day.” We were lucky enough to have been chosen as one of the charities that they will support this year. They have a goal of funding one library that will be placed in a rural elementary school in Hebei province. They will also donate a portion of the funds collected to the Japanese Red Cross, supporting the relief efforts from the recent earthquake and tsunami. I hope anyone reading this can come out for some great pizza at the Kro’s Nest. There will be prizes, and a good time for the entire family.

We are also donating 20 libraries this May to urban migrant elementary schools and community centers that were financed by the Rotary Club of Beijing, another great group of people. If you are based in Beijing and interested in volunteering, drop us an email at volunteer@library-project.org. We’ll need the help.

Another great way to get involved is to introduce The Library Project to your company’s HR department. Your company can conduct a book collection or have employees volunteer to help donate a library.

What are some of your other favorite charities?
Giving to charity is such a personal thing. This month I have been telling people to donate to the Japanese Red Cross if they would like to support the relief efforts in Japan. I tend to gravitate to smaller charities, because when I donate it is in the USD 100-500 range. My recent favorite “China-based” is Wokai (www.wokai.org). They do microfinancing in rural China. I really like their level of communication with donors, their professionalism, and I also like that they have a group of young, idealistic and passionate people who work for them. I’m also a huge fan of Compassion for Migrant Children (CMC) because of their ability to get volunteers involved in very meaningful ways in Beijing and Shanghai.

Interview by Jennifer Thomé