In 2015, 29-year-old Ruchi Dhona was a corporate professional, and after a hectic five-day work week, she would spend her weekends thinking about where her life was headed. After several conversations with herself, she decided to take charge of her life and began volunteering with Navjyoti India Foundation, an NGO in Bhondsi, Gurgaon.
As per its website, the NGO envisions to challenge the socio-economic inequalities and enable the vulnerable sections of the society towards the goal of self-reliance. The NGO works for multiple causes including education, youth empowerment, and community development.
Ruchi had been volunteering with the NGO for almost six months when one day she peeped through the window of a shut room and saw piles of books covered in cobwebs and dust. Her heart fluttered, her cheeks went hot with excitement, and it was thanks to stumbling upon a library full of books, that she found her life’s calling.
Ruchi had no experience in running a library but had always loved books.
She dusted the pages, and using jigsaw puzzles and sweet talk, she coaxed the children playing outside the campus of the NGO to leave their outdoor games and spend some time reading the books.
The children were initially indifferent, but Ruchi was surprised by how quickly things turned around. They became regular visitors and ended up spending a lot of time looking at and reading books. On Saturdays, they would help out with things like cleaning the space, sorting out books etc. There were two boys who pedalled 10 km on their bicycle every weekend, just to get books issued!
Ruchi was inspired, and in her bid to take the initiative further, she raised funds from her alma mater’s (St Xavier’s College, Kolkata) alumni network and hired a librarian for two hours a day at Rs 2,500 a month. Now the library was accessible every day of the week. Looking back, Ruchi says that even though it was her passion for books that triggered the idea; it was the enthusiasm of the kids that carried the project forward.
Consequently, Ruchi started visiting government schools in the area, to get an idea about the reading habits of the children.
Teachers would roll their eyes when they would spot her, but an unexpected development changed things.
The Education Department declared Saturdays as ‘no bag’ days, and clueless about to do if not teach from the text, the teachers became open to Ruchi’s idea of reading sessions. That is how every Saturday she began reading out books and telling stories to school children.
In 2016, she applied for Social Entrepreneurship Award run by Bain & Company, the management consulting firm where she was working, and to her immense happiness, she won it!
Ruchi received an amount of Rs 1 lakh, deposited the sum with the NGO and set out to chalk a plan for the library.
First, she realised that there was a need for simpler books for first-generation learners. She carefully selected some English, Hindi and bilingual books that in addition to being relatable, could rouse the curiosity of the kids. Foldable kits with one hundred and fifty books were made ready.
After that, Ruchi decided that it would be best if children ran the library. She identified the following eight government schools, in Sohna district, Gurgaon:
1. Khedla Girls Primary School
2. Khedla Boys Primary School
3. Ghamroj Girls Primary School
4. Alipur Boys Primary School
5. Abheypur Girls Primary School
6. Damdama Primary School
7. Palda Primary School
8. Behelpa Primary School
She selected three children per school and hired a trainer, who over the course of six workshops trained them on how to manage the library. These children would spread out the kits two days in a week, and a register which would function as a log book.
Ruchi also put a system in place as per which when the selected children graduated from primary to senior school, they would train their younger counterparts, so that the library continued to function, uninterrupted. She also got a few teachers to help out.
Reassured that the plan was in place and nothing could go wrong, Ruchi left the reigns in the hands of the NGO.
Unfortunately, once she returned after a few months, she found out that they were back to square one.
The teachers she had relied upon had been moved to other schools, the cobwebs had returned, and children had forgotten the existence of the library.
“Even though the folks at the NGO folks were trying, they didn’t have the expertise to run a library. There was no shortage of resources, what was lacking was someone who would utilise and manage those resources fully,” says Ruchi.
Ruchi decided to start from scratch once again and launched the ‘Let’s Open a Book (LOAB)’ initiative. By now some of her seniors and colleagues at work were inspired by the project and had expressed their willingness to contribute, so Ruchi decided that she would drive the project, with the help of volunteers.
The initiative won the social entrepreneurship award again in 2017. After obtaining the prize money and the confidence of the Government school teachers, Ruchi decided to open a full-fledged library in each school once again.
Setting up the libraries was just a starting point, and the team quickly realised that the books needed to be regularly updated. The team, therefore, decided to use funds to procure more books and get storytellers on board. Ruchi realised that getting volunteers and storytellers was an essential task.
Funds are not the only essential component for the success of LOAB—she needs people on the ground and committed to the mission.
It is not an easy task to find such people, but she also knows that many youngsters like her are looking for a more meaningful life.
Like twenty-three-year-old Lavanya, a volunteer, says, “You can only party this much. There has to be a larger purpose.” For twenty-two-year-old Aakash who is supervising the painting work at Government Primary school in Damdama, there is another reason. “Having come from a small village in McLeodganj, this is my way of staying connected to my roots,” he says.
Ruchi will be off to Spiti Valley this month. In her last trip, she had dispatched kits to seven Government schools in the area. This time she wants to ensure children open those books, and plans to train the teachers in storytelling.
Do you want to come along or help in any way?
(Written by Manmeet Narang)