September 29, 2009

China Daily: Library Project speaks volumes for hundreds of Chinese schools

When Arizona native Tom Stader began organizing a charity book drive for his company three years ago, he hardly figured the venture would open a new chapter in his career – and provide countless children with a new educational opportunity.

Stader was working as a marketing manager at the Aston English School in Dalian when he was assigned the task of finding a charity event for Aston to participate in. They generated the idea of collecting books and creating a library for two local orphanages. The book drive was a huge success, as Stader and his colleagues gathered more than 6,000 books and raised $500 over just one weekend. The group had solicited the families of students in the surrounding community to donate books. After buying furniture and setting up the library at the Dalian Children’s Orphanage and the Dalian Children’s Shelter, Stader still had $200 left over. Not wanting to put donors’ good intentions to waste, he used the remainder to buy more books, which were donated to schools in Vietnam.

“When I started, I would strap a box of books to my scooter and buzz them out to the countryside,” he said. “People would stare at this foreigner driving with two boxes of books attached to his bike.” He then sent photos of the students with the books to the donors, who – charmed by seeing the results of their philanthropy — sent even more money.

“People just continued donating, so I went on buying books,” said the 34-year-old Stader, who is from Phoenix. After funding nine libraries this way, Stader realized just how widespread the need for libraries was. “After that, the project really just formed itself.”

Believing China had a larger need, he decided to move his operations to Xi’an. There, The Library Project, partnered with the Xi’an Charity Association, has since donated 170 libraries — books and furniture — to schools throughout China.

Working with local governments, businesses, and charity associations, The Library Project helps assess schools in need. When a school is found, the organization develops a plan to gather the materials, Stader said. Schools then receive books, bookshelves, tables and chairs, depending on the size and capacity of the school. So far, every school it has worked with has received a library, Stader said.

For larger schools of 200 to 500 pupils, a donation of 500 to 1,500 books, bookshelves, tables and chairs is made. For midsize and smaller schools of four to 400 pupils, the group supplies 250 to 500 books, along with bookshelves. When space permits, those schools also receive tables and chairs. The libraries cost $500 to $1,000 each, Stader said “I also make sure every school receives a globe,” Stader said, “because I think it’s important that students gain a larger perspective of the world.”

Zhang Qing Feng, principal of Liu He Elementary, a school of about 500 students in Taihe county, Anhui province, has worked with The Library Project to bring a new library to the school. To Zhang, a library means having an alternative source of literacy tools for pupils. Because these children live in a rural area, many of their parents have left for the cities to earn money, Zhang said. The education is usually left to the grandparents, who are ill-equipped to educate the children. Libraries, he said, provide the missing link in their education and turn students on to mentally engaging hobbies. “I am glad to have such a library,” Zhang said. “It will put them out of their obsession with TV, time on the Internet, and video games.”

For Si Xiaosa, a 6th-grade student at Liu He Elementary School, the library has opened the pathway to a different kind of education. “I had never seen so many books before,” Xiaosa said, “Now my classmates and I borrow a book every Friday.” Her favorite book, she says, is Water Margin, a classic Chinese novel also known as Outlaws of the Marsh. The story follows the activities of Song Jiang, a heroic bandit leader, as he fights evil and corruption. “I learn courage from those heroes,” Xiaosa said. “I also learn lots of excellent words and sentences, as well as ancient Chinese wisdom from the stories.”

Since receiving the library, Xiaosa’s teacher has conducted class discussions about the stories and characters the students read about. “Students living in small villages are longing for books,” said Xiaosa’s principal, Zhang Qing Feng, “Thanks to the donation, our students living in the remote areas now have access to the outside world.”

Though The Library Project consists of just four employees, an army of volunteers across China makes it possible for them to have a much wider impact. “We mobilize thousands of volunteers across China to get the books and furniture where they need to be,” Stader said. Over 90 percent of those volunteers are Chinese, Stader said.

More than 100 volunteers are employees of Cummins Inc, a US-based manufacturer of diesel engines and related technology. Cummins is also one of The Library Project’s major benefactors. The company, which donated 33 libraries last year, encourages its employees across China to help The Library Project, said Julie Liu, chairwoman of Cummins’ Corporate Social Responsibility Committee. “They are very donor-oriented,” Liu said of The Library Project. “They are a small NGO, so we don’t have to handle the bureaucracy involved with some of the larger NGOs.”

The organization’s small size – and big reach — was one of the selling points for Allen Garber, The Library Project’s first donor. “I have been extremely impressed with how much they do and how many people they impact with how few people actually work [at The Library Project],” said Garber, of Richmond, Virginia. Garber, who discovered The Library Project through the organization’s website, said the idea to donate came after he began interviewing people for an engineering position at his company, Hamilton Beach Brands Inc. “I found out there were very well-educated people [in China], but I also found there were several people who never had a chance to get a good education,” he said. “When I saw what The Library Project was doing, I thought it was perfect – a simple, but effective way to improve the educations of those who may not otherwise have a chance.”

By the end of this year, Stader said the organization hopes to have completed a total of 225 libraries, with plans for at least 80 more in 2010.

“Libraries put the kids in the driver’s seat of their education,” Stader said. “A library not only inspires children to want to learn, but also allows them to teach themselves.”