March 2007
The Rotarian

Dear fellow Rotarians,

As members of a family of book lovers, we have always made literacy a high priority in our lives. Our home is full of books, and neither Lorna nor I ever travel without two or three. Reading is a great joy for both of us, and it is a joy we've shared with our children and grandchildren. Unfortunately, for many people around the world, the simple pleasure of reading seems hopelessly out of reach.


Without literacy, all the written words we encounter every day - not just in books and newspapers, but in maps, labels, street signs, and billboards - are mysteries and roadblocks to full integration into society. For me, teaching someone to read is one of the most rewarding acts of service imaginable. All it costs is patience and time, and the rewards are incalculable.

Like nothing else, literacy is a stepping stone away from poverty. It is a gift of self-reliance, one that can be freely passed on from generation to generation. Once there's literacy in a family, it's almost always there to stay, as literate parents raise literate children. Literate parents are also more likely to raise healthier children, whose horizons will stretch far beyond their own homes and villages. Literacy, quite literally, opens up a new world.

We need to be aware that illiteracy is not a problem only of the developing world. Even in the wealthiest countries with universal education, many people are functionally illiterate. Where illiteracy carries a stigma, it can be especially difficult to combat. Yet, in highly literate societies, being able to read and write is crucial in almost every job. Go into any prison or hospital, and you will find a disproportionate number of people who are functionally illiterate. Too many of those who work in unskilled jobs are illiterate and need their workmates to read for them. But Lorna and I have seen illiterate women in Uganda learn to read within days and children exposed to books for the first time in South Africa finding a new world they didn't know existed. We've seen Rotarians in India and Nigeria and Turkey using the concentrated language encounter method to teach thousands of women and children, and some men, to read. The issue is not one of intelligence but of opportunity.

Literacy has rightly been high on Rotary's service agenda for many years now, and it should feature among the projects of every Rotary club. Whether the goal is donating books, running literacy classes, supplying elementary school students with dictionaries, or just helping children with their schoolwork, literacy projects bring great results with very little investment of money. As someone who has spent many hours sitting on undersized chairs listening to children read, I wholeheartedly believe that the stiff muscles are a small price to pay for the lifelong benefits of literacy.

W.B. (Bill) Boyd
President, Rotary International

Read more messages from Bill Boyd.