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was outdated," he recalls.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
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
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
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
Pabon concurs: "We will all come out of this
as better people."