Changing the World
As a single woman in her 30s, marketing executive Genevieve Piturro was focused on climbing the corporate ladder. Then at age 38, she met her husband and the pair started settling into a life together—but she says something was missing. Though she never felt the pressure to have her own kids, Genevieve knew she wanted to have kids around her. "I started to volunteer at night," Genevieve says. "I'm a big reader, so I'd go around and read [to kids]. I'd call shelters and group homes and different organizations and volunteer."
As she worked at different shelters, Genevieve started to notice that none of the children owned pajamas. They would go to sleep in their regular clothes.
"I said, 'Where's the bedtime? My mom was a great mom, and everybody has a mom who reads them a story and puts on their pajamas, don't they?'"
Genevieve got to work right away. She approached an after-school program for child victims of abuse and pitched her idea. "[They] said, 'That would be great! Nobody thinks of that. Nobody gives pajamas,'" she says.
The next time she visited the shelter, Genevieve had a shopping bag full of pj's—a pair for each child. "[A] girl came in, and she must have been 6 or 7, and she looks and she says to me quietly, 'What are these?'" Genevieve says. "I said, 'They're pajamas. You wear them to sleep. What do you wear at night?' And she said, 'My pants.'"
After that, Genevieve knew that one shopping bag of pajamas wouldn't cut it. She told everyone she knew about her mission, and she gathered as many pj's as she could. In just five years, Genevieve collected more than 85,000 pairs of pajamas for needy children!
What Genevieve doesn't know is that about a week before she appeared on The Oprah Show, the producers contacted every audience member—more than 300 people—and asked them to bring as many pairs of pajamas as possible. But there was a catch—they could only buy one pair each, so they had to get creative.
So, did they come through? Yes, they did! The audience brought Genevieve 32,046 pairs of pajamas!
Audience member Carolyn was resourceful in her quest to help. She got all her friends to donate—and even found a local business, BJ's Wholesale Club, to pitch in. In total, Carolyn brought 10,130 pairs of pajamas!
Four friends from Baltimore—Hillary, Emily, Jennifer and Tricia—also made a huge donation. They raised $20,000 in five days for the project. With the help of a discount from SkivvyDoodles, a company that sells pajamas, they were able to buy 5,000 sets!
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Genevieve says. "I've never seen so many!"
Then, John took a vacation that would change his life forever. "My first trip to Nepal in 1998 was taken just to escape from the constant 7/24, commando, business-warrior lifestyle," he says. "I trekked for 18 days through areas that had no paved roads, no cars, no telephones. People were living in poverty in conditions that I just found shocking."
During his trip, John took an opportunity to visit a school, thinking he would see the "real Nepal." What he saw depressed him. Seventy five or 80 kids were crammed into a small room with dirt floors. "Most importantly, they had a library that had only about 20 books that were backpacker cast-offs, completely inappropriate for children," he says. "And I wondered, 'How can you ever break the cycle of poverty if the kids don't get educated?'"
John vowed to return to the school within a year to bring books for a new library. "One of the teachers said to me, 'Many people have told us they will come back, but nobody ever does.'"
With the help of his father, John began gathering more books than he ever dreamed possible. "We thought we'd collect 300, 400 books. Three thousand books rolled in, in the first month," he says. Soon thereafter, John kept his promise. He and his father returned to Nepal, loaded eight donkeys with books and visited schools to stock their libraries.
As John realized the scale of the problem, he began working on more book deliveries. And the reaction of the children in villages fueled his new mission. "These kids were just mobbing us. … As I take the books out of the backpack—it's like a mosh pit," he says. "It's like a literacy-palooza!"
Once the children received their books, John says they began to learn about places they'd never seen. As one little girl looked at a book about outer space, John realized she didn't even know that man had ever walked on the moon.
At first, he tried to juggle his corporate responsibilities with his charitable cause. "I was doing my literacy project in kind of a half-baked manner, and I was doing Microsoft in kind of a half-baked manner…and I'm not really a half-baked kind of guy," he says. "I would be getting an e-mail from Bill Gates's assistant about Bill's visit to China, which I was supposedly in charge of. And I was, like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, because I've got this mail over here from somebody who wants to give me 20 copies of a Dr. Seuss book for our libraries.'"
Although John loved his job and all the perks that went with it, he was ready for a more meaningful existence. "I was feeling the pull," he says. "I thought, 'It's been a great eight years, but I'm making wealthy shareholders wealthier. Meanwhile, there are 800 million people in the developing world lacking basic literacy. … What kind of a man am I if I don't go face this challenge directly or devote my life to this?'"
John made the difficult decision to quit his job so he could dedicate 100 percent of his energy to improving literacy in developing countries. "People said, 'You're crazy. You're having a midlife crisis,'" he says. "And I thought, 'Wouldn't it be a crisis to not follow my heart and not follow my passion?'"
So far, John and his team have distributed almost 3 million children's books, constructed 287 schools, established 3,600 libraries and funded more than 2,000 long-term scholarships for girls in third-world countries. But they didn't stop there!
Room to Read has established local language publishing programs throughout the world so children can have access to culturally relevant books that are written in their native languages.
"We've had to literally find the Dr. Seuss of Nepal and the Dr. Seuss of Cambodia and give them a small amount of money to write and illustrate books that then are put in the hands of kids," he says. "By the end of this year, we'll have 250 original titles that we've produced that are all done by local authors."
"You give up a lot," he says. "But when [you] walk into a village … and [watch] the red ribbon get cut on a school, you think to yourself, 'This is not sacrifice. This is something that you can barely describe.' It makes you feel so good."
John may be making less money than he ever has in his life, but he's also putting in more hours than he ever has before. "I feel lucky that I found this, but I also feel a certain sense of impatience because there are so many kids we haven't reached yet," he says. "Every week we get these heartbreaking letters in our office in San Francisco from people saying, 'When can you bring Room to Read to Cameroon? When can you bring Room to Read to the slums of Rio de Janeiro?' … We have to think about all the kids we haven't yet reached, and then just go back to work."
Currently, there are more than 770 million illiterate adults in the world, two-thirds of whom are women and girls. John hopes to change this by building 20,000 new libraries by the year 2020. Help Room to Read reach its goal by donating a book today!
In 2000, Barbara began using coupons to buy cartloads of groceries for impoverished members of her community. Savvy shopping allowed her to get hundreds of dollars worth of groceries for less than most people pay for a single meal at a fast-food chain. "[Once] my bill was $187, but when I finished [using coupons], I paid $3.02," she says.
Barbara began passing out food from the trunk of her car, but when the demand outgrew her small Kia, her church allowed her to set up in the basement. Church members also agreed to help her categorize the food, clip coupons and stock up on more groceries. "We would go into the stores every Sunday, and we would wipe out the shelves," Barbara says.
They started out helping 10 families, which grew to 100 and then 1,000. Now, Barbara runs a food pantry that feeds 1,500 families a month!
Barbara's church donated a nearby building for her community center, and she is working to raise funds to rehabilitate it. She also continues to run a food bank, an after-care center for children, a Section 8 program and a senior drop-off food program. "You could really see what the issues were in our community," she says. "I believed that the community center would be a lighthouse, so that I could see into the lives [of others]."
Want to help people in your community? Instead of throwing away your coupons, you too can save big money on nonperishable food items and donate them to the needy. Find a food pantry near you.