A few years ago, while working with Room to Read, a global literacy program with libraries and local language book publishers throughout Africa and Asia, I met an 11-year-old Sri Lankan student, Sajitha.
I had been sent on assignment to Sri Lanka and Cambodia to collect best practices developed by rural communities to sustain their libraries. Guided by my local colleagues, we traveled from village to village, seeking out innovative ways education was supported, sometimes in some of the most unexpected places.
In one rural, farming community in central Sri Lanka, the team brought me to a weekly book club meeting. We had spent a few weeks darting around the country, visiting energized government schools and awe-inspiring libraries in the homes of young students. Sitting in that small house, watching the bright eyes of the students and their quiet parents as Sajitha opened the meeting, I was amazed.
Sajitha’s family lived in a two-bedroom house, situated under a giant Bodhi tree with a lightbulb dangling in the center of each room and curtains blowing in the doorways to offer privacy. One bedroom was transformed into the community library. It was organized exactly as the Room to Read library at school; bookshelves holding books organized by reading levels and topics, a small desk covered with student drawings from the stories they read, a meticulous checkout list and a few English-Sinhala dictionaries.
The room where the meeting took place was dark and hot. There were more than 25 book club members, ages 5-14 years old, sitting in plastic chairs with a few shy village elders watching from a distance. The rest of us sat quietly as the library club president, 11 year-old Sajitha, flanked by her executive officers (and best friends), welcomed everyone to the meeting.
Sajitha sat proudly smiling in her chair, explained that her parents were excited to offer the club a room in their house. One by one, students invited their friends to check out books and attend meetings. Many adults in the community were also utilizing the new library.
Examples of Sajitha’s book club and countless others serve as proof that people can create incredible social progress through determination without needing to wait for financial resources. The many families that shared their experience with our team were all challenged with financial stress, and some, like in the northern regions of the country, are rebuilding their communities after 20 years of civil war. Yet, they place a high value on education and when opportunity presented itself, incredible things were created.
During tea after the book club meeting, a parent leaned forward in his chair to explain that before they had nothing and now they had an opportunity for a new life. This opportunity to rebuild the school and establish a library was a “different kind of change.”