Christmas Postcard

The Holy Family, waiting for Christmas in Calcutta

Christmas Postcard

Time to get out the creche…and cull the sheep who’ve lost their heads.
“Reading is our only vaccine against ignorance. Education is our children’s best guarantee of a better life.” 
David Risher, co-founder of Worldreader.

Here’s what I’m doing for Christmas gifts this year for my family: Donating in their names to Worldreader. It’s a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating illiteracy among the world’s poor, using e-readers and mobile phones.

My siblings and I are only sporadically committed to giving gifts, anyway, other than to our  various nieces and nephews. Every year, my sister Mary and I share a conspiratorial phone call:

“You’re not giving me anything for Christmas, right?”

“Right, and you’re not giving me anything, right?”

“Right. Thanks. Goodbye.”

We are all readers, to one degree or another. When we were young, we always got books for Christmas (books and the inevitable clock radio under the tree for someone among the six of us). So Worldreader is appropriate.

The organization has distributed more than 721,000 digital books to 12,381 children in nine Africa countries, since it was founded in 2010. The books are loaded onto e-readers, creating international libraries of good literature in places they otherwise wouldn’t exist. Many of the books are from African authors and publishers, making them much more relevant to the children reading them.

There are 740 million illiterate people in this world and 250 million children of primary school age who lack basic reading and writing skills, according to UNESCO. Fifty percent of schools in sub-Saharan Africa have few books, if they have any at all. Worldreader found one school whose meager library included an outdated history of Connecticut (or maybe it was Colorado, I’m not sure).

Worldreader is the brainchild of former Microsoft and executive David Risher. When he volunteered at an orphanage in Ecuador and spied a padlocked building with piles of books in the windows, he asked what was going on. “That’s our library,” said the orphanage’s director. “But I’ve lost the key.”

Kindles were just coming on the market, and that kindled an idea in Risher’s mind. The widespread use of mobile phones, the falling cost of e-readers and the power of children’s attraction to books could transform lives around the world. Risher consulted with Colin McElwee, an economist and executive at Barcelona’s ESADE Business School, and they co-founded Worldreader.

Worldreader rigorously monitors the impact of its programs. In an early study of results, researchers found that children showed significant improvements in fluency and comprehension less than five months after receiving their books. The organization partners with long-established charitable organizations and with publishers and authors.

It’s easy to donate. Worldreader will accept your used Kindle (send an e-mail to, as well as monetary donations. If you’ve got the inclination and the means, you can sponsor a classroom starting with a donation of $9,600. You can buy an e-reader case for $40, and Worldreader will deliver an e-reader to a deserving student.

That’s how I’m simplifying Christmas this year.

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