Starting my own charity
When Rob (23) got involved in volunteering at uni he had no idea that he'd soon be running his own charity and helping children in Tanzania.
About the charity
Our organisation, READ International, has two key objectives. One is to get books that aren't being used in UK schools to Tanzanian schools where the curriculum is the same. Our second key objective is to go into every school we collect books from and give a workshop explaining why we're doing this and show how pupils can actively get involved in helping us. The aim is to promote student volunteering, global citizenship, sustainability and recycling.
True Story: Starting my own charity
The project is run by teams of student volunteers in different universities around the country. Each uni project has three student project leaders who lead about 20 volunteers. One focuses on fundraising, one on book collection and one on school presentations. At the beginning of the year all the project leaders come together in London to attend a training session and knowledge sharing session to take on our vision and mission and appreciate what we're doing.
How I got involved
I'd travelled before uni and seen parts of the developing world, so I'd always been interested in international development, but I certainly didn't go to university with any ideas to pursue it as a career. My mate had been to Tanzania teaching on his gap year and he made me aware that the Tanzanian education system is based on the British system, but there's a huge demand for educational resources. He decided to get a group of us together and do something about it. The idea began slowly, then when my friend graduated I decided to lead the project with a couple of friends, and it started to get more serious.
I got a team of volunteers together and we contacted 200 secondary schools and started to collect in the region of 40,000 text books. We sorted through them to send the best quality to Tanzania. We sent maths, physics, chemistry, biology and geography books, which perfectly match the syllabus, but we weren't interested in sending anything religious or political or culturally offensive. We had no idea how to ship and distribute all these books to Tanzania, but I managed to lead a team of student volunteers through it!
As a group of friends at uni we really had achieved something that a lot of people didn't believe we could achieve. A lot of people were quick to tell us that it wouldn't work, we wouldn't be able to make the right contacts or distribute the books and that the container would be held in customs for too long, but it all worked. I had meetings with the Tanzanian Government, with the Department for International Development, the British Council and told them I was going back to England to replicate this and get it started as a national venture. At that time I was laughed out of the room! The Government out there said, "great if you do it but we'll believe it when we see it".
It's really rewarding doing something that has a massive impact on hundreds of thousands of children across Tanzania.
There were a lot of difficulties, but I think it's worked because of sheer determination from me and the students who originally set up the idea. That, combined with the skills and experience that the larger professional organisations have offered us, has made it a success.
Funding was very difficult at first as well. Luckily, as an almost entirely student volunteer concept the costs are low - it costs about 50p to take one textbook to Tanzania - the same text books are worth about £20 in a bookshop in East Africa. Most of the money comes from students getting involved in fundraising activities like cake selling and skydiving. As the director, I act as a mechanism that unites it all and gives it direction, but ultimately it's the students that do all the work on the ground.
Expanding our horizons
I get a lot of funny looks from my friends who've got 'proper jobs' working in accountancy firms or as lawyers on a graduate scheme earning plenty of money. But it's really rewarding doing something that has a massive impact on hundreds of thousands of children across Tanzania. The feedback we've had from school kids, teachers and senior government policy makers out there has been amazing. They say that what we're doing compliments their national policy and they've agreed a three-year partnership with us, which is brilliant.
The charity is at a really exciting stage right now. This summer we're taking 125,000 text books over to Tanzania which will directly help 100 schools. In October we're going to be operating out of universities in eleven areas across England so we will be launching ourselves as a national schools textbook recycling operation. Beyond that I see no reason why we can't replicate the same concept internationally. For example, the Australian national curriculum is very similar to ours and there's a lot of book wastage there.
I'd always encourage anyone to get involved in volunteering. We educate pupils in UK schools to help us by badgering teachers and rallying around to make sure their books don't end up in landfill, and to help raise money. If they're not interested in helping us we also encourage them to think about helping another organisation or to set up their own social enterprise or charity. I really want to encourage kids to embrace volunteering, not just to get a job and improve their CV, but as something rewarding for themselves..
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