After five days of 9-5 job typical corporate job, 29 year old Ruchi Dhona used to go looking for a purpose in life on weekends at an NGO in Nayagaon, Bhondsi. This was the year 2015. She had been volunteering with the NGO for almost six months when one day she peeped through the window of a shut room. Her eyes hovered over books covered in cobwebs and dust. Her heart fluttered and cheeks went hot with excitement. That’s how Ruchi stumbled upon a library full of books and her calling.
She had no experience how to run a library but she had always been in love with books. With jigsaw puzzles and lot of sweet talk, she convinced children to leave their outdoor games and spend some time with books. She was surprised to see those who initially said they will come only for some time, now were sitting for more than hour looking at and reading books. Then there were two boys who pedalled 10 km on their bicycle every weekend, just to get books issued. Ruchi was even more convinced and inspired. Through meagre funds of the NGO, a librarian was hired for two hours a day at Rs.2500 a month. Now library was accessible every day of the week.
Looking back, Ruchi says even though it was her passion for books that triggered the idea but it was the enthusiasm of the kids that carried the project forward. The image of the two boys on the bicycle left a deep impression on her and she wondered if there were other kids who would love to read books too. She found other that there were 70 primary schools in the vicinity and she decided to start setting up libraries in as many schools as she could. The name ‘Let’s Open a Book’ thus came as naturally as the initiative itself.
The first need was that of age-appropriate books for first generation school-goers. It was then in the year 2016 that she applied for Social Entrepreneurship Award run by Bain &Co. (where she was working) and won it. With one lakh in hand, a lot was possible now. She deposited the sum with the NGO and set out to chalk a plan. She picked Hindi and bilingual books that were rooted in our culture, rouse the curiosity of the kids, and were very relatable. Foldable kit with one hundred and fifty books was sent out to the eight Government schools. The kids lapped them up.
The Library Girl!
Assured there were enough funds and books, Ruchi left the reigns in the hands of the NGO, only to return after few months to find they were back to square one. The teachers (being on rotation) been moved to other schools, the cobwebs had returned and children had forgotten the existence of the library. Ruchi decided to take the ownership of the initiative in her hands. Soon she found that she wasn’t alone anymore. By now some of her seniors and colleagues were inspired by the project and had expressed willingness to contribute. Every weekend the team of volunteers divided themselves to visit all the eight Government primary schools.
At first the teachers at Government schools rolled their eyes at her sight whenever she visited. Until the Education Department declared Saturdays as ‘no bag’ days. Clueless so as to what activities to do if not teach from the text, the Government school teachers became open to Ruchi’s idea of reading sessions. That is how every Saturday under the canopy of peepal tree, Ruchi began reading out books and telling stories to kids.
…It Doesn’t Stop Here!
The project has come a long way since then and there are many stories coming out of it. During one of her visits, she found out that a school had 1000 books buried in a trunk, which were unlocked and are now being used. In another school, the hundred little girls attending that school have read over 3000 books over the last couple of years! In 2017 she won the social entrepreneurship award again. After winning another lakh and the confidence of the Government school teachers, Ruchi is now working towards having a full-fledged library in each school. Painting the walls, changing light bulbs in the library room are underway.
Having found her calling, sticking to a corporate job seemed impossible. She quit her job and gave herself a much needed holiday to Spiti Valley. But with Ruchi, even the vacation turned out to be another mission.
The Valley Of….Books!
“The whole idea began as a holiday. But inside I felt it could be both a holiday and something fruitful. I found an organisation Spiti Ecosphere and when I contacted them their founder Ishita showed lot of willingness. But after that it was tough to get through because of bad connection. So when I reached Spiti, I had no clue whom to meet and where to begin. I was sitting in café when I tried her number again. I realized the phone was ringing right next to my ears. I looked up to see it belonged to the girl taking my order. The girl turned out to be Ishita, the owner of the cafe and Spiti Ecosphere”
Ishita showed her around the schools there. By the time Ruchi was packing her bags to return, she had found a cluster of seven schools with a total strength of hundred children and an idea. She created seven kits of thirty books each, but all kits carried a different variety. The kits were dispatched to Spiti with a reminder of the deal they had struck. The seven schools will meet once every month and exchange their kits. Ruchi was grinning. She knew she wasn’t sending out just books, but so many possibilities to collaborate, learn and grow.
A Larger Purpose
Ruchi is clear, that it is not only funds they would need. She needs people on the ground, who are and committed to the mission. It is not easy but she’s sure that there are many youngsters like her who are looking for a more meaningful life. Like twenty three year old Lavanya, a volunteer with Let’s Open a book 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 the roots.”
Ruchi is off to Spiti Valley for a second round to interaction in June. This time the agenda is to train the teachers in creating vibrant spaces where kids can come to read. But there is an issue. She has not done this before. A doubt sits in the corner of her heart how she will do it. She has forgotten three years ago she didn’t have any experience on how to set up libraries but today show knows it like the back of her hand. She looks at the pictures of children with books in their hand, lost in another world. They will lead me, she says out aloud.
Join her mission by donating/ volunteering! She can be reached at 8826259052. Follow their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/letsopenabook/ or write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org