Right now, Room to Read is conducting its annual Chapter Leader Conference (the 9th annual), which gives the Room to Read staff the opportunity to bring our chapter leaders up-to-date and to present our vision for the years ahead. It also provides a key forum for chapter leaders to share best practices across their chapters. Our Boston Chapter Co-Leader, Barb Heffner, shares her impressions of one of the sessions on our Girls' Education program which ties in nicely with this week's celebration of International Women's Day.
When I attended my first Chapter Leader Conference last year, I was ill-prepared from a tissue-stocking standpoint. There are so many moments when a Room to Read program staffer shares a story of an individual student, which makes Room to Read’s work come alive (and makes me reach for my Kleenex!)
Emily Leys kicked off the first session which immediately started the tear-jerking moments. Emily is a senior global program officer for Room to Read, leading the Girls’ Education Program -- a personal favorite of mine. Emily has been with the organization for nine years, and she’s just a ball of fire. She graciously gave us an hour of her time and then left directly for the airport, for a trip to Vietnam!
I always value the stats about the difference that girls’ education can make. For example, one study shows that educating an additional 10 percent of the girls in a country boosts the GDP by three percent.
We tend to oversimplify the Girls’ Education program, for shorthand, by describing it as a girls’ scholarship program. But that’s a terrible injustice because it’s so much more than that, and the program’s tremendous success depends on its holistic nature. It includes exam preparation and tutoring, remedial education, transportation where needed, life skills workshops and mentoring. In a nutshell, the program is designed not just to educate a girl in the conventional sense, but also to support the student and equip her for success in life.
The program has been underway for a sufficiently long time now that Room to Read is beginning to see its first graduates! And the success rate has been terrific, with about 98 percent of girls advancing to the next grade.
One program graduate is now a Room to Read employee in Cambodia, working as a mentor for younger girls. She is bringing the benefits of education full circle, providing the next generation of students with a vibrant role model from their own community.
Another student who has graduated demonstrates the lengths some girls will go to to advocate for themselves. This girl – a member of India’s untouchable caste – was always highly self-motivated. When both of her parents died, she began living with an aunt, who initially did not support her desire to continue her schooling. This young girl went on a hunger strike for three days to show her auntie how very much she wanted to continue her schooling. (Emily was quick to note that Room to Read does not endorse hunger strikes! This occurred before the student became involved in the Girls’ Education program.)
Under the Girls’ Education program, this girl was able to continue her schooling through secondary school. As part of the program, some health care professionals visited one day as part of a career education session. The student was inspired by this visit, and having graduated, she will shortly start university. She aims to be a doctor!
Stories like this one recharge volunteer chapter leaders like me. Time and again, we are reminded that by sheer chance, we were born in a country where education for girls is a right. It is so rewarding to support an organization that is trying to extend that right to deserving girls in the developing world.
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