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Spreading the Word

Jason Reese '95 and a team of IC alumni volunteers help promote literacy around the world.

by Jay Wrolstad

 

Room to Read founder John Wood (far left) and chief operating officer Erin Keown (in red) before a recent fund-raising event with Ithaca volunteers Andrew Schrader '98, Marc Cahill '95, Sylvia Pabon '00, Chris Jean '98, Ray Van Ness III '98, John Antonino '96, and Jason Reese '95.
 

For a guy who, up until a few months ago, had little involvement in charity work, Jason Reese '95 has taken to philanthropy in a big way. And why not --- the cause he has embraced, known as Room to Read, has proven that it can breathe new life into impoverished, undereducated communities in developing countries.

While leafing through a business magazine earlier this year, Reese read an article about Room to Read, then took a look at the organization's website and was instantly impressed by its objectives and accomplishments. The organization's literacy-based initiatives had special appeal for Reese, who is a partner in Slangman Education Essentials, an L.A.-based publishing company specializing in textbooks and study guides for young adults.

Room to Read, founded by former Microsoft executive John Wood in 1998, provides basic educational resources for children living in areas that lack schools and libraries. To demonstrate commitment to the project, local community involvement is mandatory. Challenge grants require villages to raise a significant portion of the overall expenditures for building schools and establishing libraries, computer labs, and language labs. They do this through donated land, labor, materials, and cash.

To date Room to Read has established 33 new schools and 400 school libraries, distributed some 200,000 books, and awarded scholarships to 120 girls in Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, and India.

After visiting the Room to Read headquarters and donating $13,000 worth of reading materials from Slangman, Reese raised his level of commitment. "I learned that they had a promotional video that was outdated," he recalls. "I mentioned that I had worked in the entertainment business as a TV producer and offered my help in creating a new video with help from other Ithaca College grads that I knew."

It was an offer Room to Read could not refuse, and Reese worked the West Coast Ithaca grapevine to put the project in motion. "We will travel to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Nepal, and possibly India, in the fall," he says, to work on documentary footage of Room to Read projects in action. "We want to accentuate the positive things being done in parts of the world that desperately need help." That means, she says, doing more than
simply showing pictures of poverty-stricken children that pull at the heartstrings, and instead focusing on the schools that have been built and the girls who have received scholarships.


Building a school in Ngadi, Nepal


Opening day of school in Kathmandu Valley, Nepal
 

The crew members are providing their own video equipment or obtaining contributions of gear. They are donating their time and paying all transportation costs while Room to Read will help with on-site expenses. All have worked together at one time or another in Los Angeles on various television and film enterprises and are eager to reunite on the project this fall.

Ray Van Ness III '98 is among those hoping to make a difference. "I have spent some time in Thailand, and I know there is a serious problem with the treatment of women in that part of the world," he says. "Many of the women I got to know had been forced into prostitution to support their families because there were no other opportunities available. By making a point of educating girls, Room to Read is addressing this problem."

That emphasis on educating girls, in addition to Reese's inspirational enticements, was a critical factor when Sylvia Pabon '00 decided to become a Room to Read volunteer. Pabon, an actor, says she will fill the role of "gofer" on the video crew. "Future mothers and heads of households will receive an education and impart their interest in learning to future generations," she says. "Anyone who has been to these countries, as I have, knows that the children there need a leg up." Room to Read programs are working, says Pabon. "The girls who have received scholarships often say 'I want to be a teacher' or 'I want to be a doctor.' They are aiming higher, which is tremendous."

Van Ness, a voice-over artist who narrates the Behind the Music series for VH1 and whose other clients include the Discovery Channel, will put his film degree to work for Room to Read. He plans to operate the camera, work on sound, offer his narration skills, and assist with postproduction tasks for the video.

"I was drawn to the organization by its dedication," says Van Ness. "They are creating independent cells that can operate on their own. They are going about their work the right way, unlike organizations that throw money at a problem and walk away."

Reese offers a similar take, pointing to Room to Read's efficient, low-overhead business model. More than ninety percent of money raised is spent on projects overseas, and there are just two full-time employees at the organization's headquarters, he notes. "They help people help themselves and support local economies by purchasing as much as they can from the community they are working in. Volunteer groups are established that are autonomous, creating tremendous efficiency for the organization."

Andrew Schrader '98 says he's looking forward to supporting a noble cause and visiting a part of the world he's never seen. "There are so many people in trouble in the world, and education is the key to helping them," he says. "You can only sit back for so long until you want to do something."

Schrader, a video editor for Autonomy in Hollywood, says he is the "official director of photography" for the documentary video project. "Jason was very convincing," he says.

Reese also served as point man for an L.A. Room to Read fund-raiser held in July with support from a contingent of Ithaca College alumni volunteers. "Jason is an inspiration," says Erin Keown, chief operating officer of Room to Read. "He understands the needs in the countries we serve and has a great desire to give back and help less-fortunate children."

Establishing a presence in Los Angeles is a significant step for the organization, Keown says in offering kudos to Reese and the alumni volunteers. "It has a diverse and well-traveled population where we expect to draw a lot of interest and help."

The video produced by Reese and his companions will be instrumental in reaching out to an even broader audience, she says, through distribution to grassroots volunteer groups throughout the country and eventually worldwide.

"This is my first involvement as an active volunteer," says Reese. "I am astonished by the way I have taken to this organization. It's an education."

Pabon concurs: "We will all come out of this as better people."

   

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A. Ozolins, Ithaca College Office of Publications, 28 October, 2003