Ruchi Dhona first visited the picturesque Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh sometime in 2017 after quitting her corporate job. As she had some experience in volunteering with various non-profits, she wanted to do something else besides travelling.
After speaking to people working there, she made a plan to set up a small library and get the locals to take ownership of it so that their children could read quality books.
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However, subsequent visits to different parts of Spiti made her realize that this wasn’t going to be enough because schools are typically located far away from the other.
By the end of 2017, she started a pilot project giving a few schools a small collection of books, and requested the teachers to rotate them across different schools through the winter. She returned to Spiti in June 2018 to see how the initiative was progressing.
“There was barely a single book store in Spiti, and I saw teachers and children value the books we had given them. In September 2018, I went back again, conducted a small four-day workshop with teachers and began working on our initiative,” says Ruchi.
Following this, she started the ‘Let’s Open A Book’ initiative working alongside the Meenakshi Foundation, a non-profit, and the district administration.
So far, Ruchi has managed to help 50 government primary schools and 10 government middle schools in the remote corners of the Valley, access quality children’s literature in three languages—Hindi, English and Bhoti—benefiting over 600 students. Teachers in these schools have gone onto develop their own libraries with the books they receive. The initiative also trains local teachers to help children engage with the material available in these books.
Why is this initiative important?
The Spiti Valley lies in the mountainous cold desert region located in the Himalayas, and the area is known for its challenging terrain and sub-zero temperatures, making it difficult for civil society organizations to carry out sustained interventions. Children here get the bare minimum in schools, that usually don’t have fully functioning libraries.
“The idea is to build a culture of reading among children. At the moment, the initiative is focussed on government primary schools, where we begin by setting up small libraries, followed by working with the teachers to help them understand how to use these books and how they can engage the children. We are helping to revive the local public library as well,” says Ruchi to TBI.
Most of these primary grade children’s books come from Indian publishers across three languages—Hindi, English and Bhoti.
“We chose Hindi because children here understand and speak the language fairly well. English, meanwhile, is an aspirational language and Bhoti is locally spoken. These are essentially storybooks with a significant illustration. Even if some children are unable to read the text, they can still look at these pictures and enjoy the story. These books have been curated to develop a diverse collection, bringing out different themes,” states Ruchi.
She adds that the initiative is also working towards creating a children’s book relevant for them.
“I don’t know of a single popular children’s book that talks about Spiti, its children and life there. Therefore, our third project there is about children telling their own stories,” she mentions.
As she quit her job in 2017, starting and keeping this initiative going full-time wasn’t easy for Ruchi. While the Wipro Fellowship that she won, gave her a small seed amount to kickstart her work, she earns no salary from it and is the lone person dedicated to this initiative full-time.
Having said that, she acknowledges the help she has received from The Meenakshi Foundation that collects the necessary funding for the project, while the district administration, particularly Sub Divisional Officer Jeevan Singh Negi, has played a critical role in enabling this project.
“But this is just the beginning. It’s not about the number of teachers trained or libraries built, but creating an in-depth learning programmme. That’s going to be our focus over the next three years. For example, with children writing their own stories about Spiti, our objective will be to take it to mainstream publishers and publish quality storybooks for them. We are also looking to collaborate with local experts in culture, art and music as well,” she says.
The initiative needs your help to further its cause. It requires funds for the distribution of more books, logistics (travel, teacher training programmes, etc.) and construction of libraries. Here’s how your contribution will help:
INR 100 = 1 book
INR 500 = 5 books
INR 5,000 = 100 books
INR 50,000 = A reading corner in a government school
INR 2,00,000 = A village library
If you are willing to help this heartwarming initiative, please click here.
(You can follow Let’s Open A Book on their Facebook page here.)
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)