It’s only been two years since its inception, but The World Is Just a Book Away nonprofit already has launched 47 school libraries in Indonesia and reached 25,000 children with 45,000 books.
“I was very surprised to learn that most of these children had never seen books with pictures and never read a book for enjoyment,” said James Owens, an assistant professor at the USC Marshall School of Business. “Most of us take books for granted and never think about it. It can be hard to imagine that there are children who have little to no access to books.”
It all began with friendships established at USC Marshall more than 12 years ago. Owens founded the organization in 2008 while writing his own book with the same title about books that have inspired prominent people.
“My plan was always to donate part of the profits to charity,” he said. “I felt the best way to have the greatest impact would be to provide access to books to children in developing countries. So I decided to start my own charity.”
Armed with this idea, Owens approached Andru Subowo, a young man who he had met in 1999 while he was the associate director for USC Marshall’s MBA Career Center and Subowo was an MBA student.
Subowo, now the managing director of Bramadi Capital, based in Jakarta, Indonesia, since 2001 had been building mini-libraries and renovating classrooms in Indonesia through his Padi Pratama Foundation.
“Andru suggested I consider Indonesia because there were so many children there who needed help,” recalled Owens, who had made several trips to visit the Indonesian rainforests and felt a strong attachment to the Pacific Asian country and its people.
Subowo recommended the Sidoarjo region, part of Eastern Java in Indonesia, as the first site because it had been hit hard by a mudflow disaster that displaced an estimated 60,000 people.
In October 2008, fundraising efforts began. Less than six months later, 10 libraries were up and running in Sidoarjo.
But Owens’ vision did not end with brick and mortar libraries. “We wanted to work with children and the communities on a continuous basis by providing programs through the libraries, including leadership development, environmental and artistic programs,” he said.
A project manager was hired to manage the logistics and help identify schools where a library was needed and desired. According to Owens, parents, teachers and administrators of the schools must be willing to partner with The World Is Just a Book Away “in a deeper way.” That is, before a library is built, the community must commit to participate by raising 10 percent of the cost to actively maintain and run the library.
“We strongly believe in community involvement,” Owens said. “The local people know what is best for their community and we want to … provide them with a sense of ownership and pride in the projects.”
He added: “We bring catalogs of books and ask the children what they want to read, so they are actively involved in choosing the books for the library.”
One of the organization’s biggest boosts came when the Alumni USC Club of Indonesia, led by Vanessa Hendriadi MBA ’02, an active member of the club’s executive committee, stepped in to help.
“We started to be active in this school library-building effort because we had received reports of children having to learn English by reading instruction manuals they had found in garbage dumps,” said Holip Soekawan, president of the club.
“One library touches approximately 300 to 500 children in surrounding areas,” said Soekawan, who earned his business degree from USC Marshall’s Lloyd Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. “In terms of results, I guess our biggest barometer is the smiles on the children’s faces when they see a library filled with books.”
Over the past two years, the group has raised enough money to build 18 libraries with The World Is Just a Book Away in various regions in Indonesia.
“I believe that this is a strong testament to the commitment of the USC alumni in Indonesia to the education of children in their own country, and it is a wonderful, meaningful partnership for [the organization] in general and for me personally, given my own connection with USC Marshall and USC, both as a faculty member and as an alumnus,” Owens said.
The Alumni USC Club of Indonesia has pledged to continue its commitment by building 50 libraries in the next five years.
Fundraising efforts for The World Is Just a Book Away also are prominent in Kuwait, led by Rayah Al-Sabah ‘09.
“People may think it’s hard to have an impact with a charity,” Owens said. “But actually with just one dollar, we’re able to buy a book, for as little as $2,500, we can build an entire library for a school that doesn’t have a library, and for as little as $10,000, we can build a library that also serves as a community center. People have the ability to make an enormous difference,” Owens said.