Nila Tanzil established her first children’s library three and a half years ago. She’ll officially open her 26th today.
On a steep, pineapple-riddled hillside in Melo, East Nusa Tenggara, 300 children rush to greet Nila with a mix of bashful smiles and around-the-waist hugs. Village elders smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and nod reassuringly as a bamboo xylophone chimes in the distance.
Normally Nila shows up in Melo with dozens of boxes containing children’s story books donated by volunteers and supporters. For kids in remote areas of eastern Indonesia, access to quality children’s books is a privilege, not a priority.
Nila established Taman Bacaan Pelangi, or the Rainbow Reading Gardens, to change all that.
“The books we provide and the libraries we establish are meant to inspire the kids and encourage them to dream big,” Nila said.
“The stories they read will stimulate their imagination and creativity. Books open a whole new horizon and the libraries provide access to knowledge and information about the world beyond their house or village.”
This time, Nila brought friends from Havaianas, the Brazil-based sandals franchise. Havaianas joined forces with Nila a few months ago after reading about Taman Bacaan Pelangi and the grassroots libraries.
“Havaianas wants to do something for Indonesia and we need a partner that has done something directly with the community and does it with heart,” said Widhiari Murti, the marketing coordinator for Havaianas Indonesia.
“We saw an article about Taman Bacaan Pelangi … and thought it was perfect. We did a little research online, asked around and finally contacted Nila.”
Havaianas set up donation boxes in branches across Indonesia, where customers could drop off books. They also kicked off “Happy Mind, Happy Feet,” a passionate campaign encouraging customers to be a part of the movement. For every pair of sandals purchased a pair would go to a child from rural eastern Indonesia. Havaianas topped off the campaign by handing over hundreds of books on top of the 1,500 sandals they donated to various Rainbow Reading Gardens villages.
Nila arrived in Labuan Bajo, Flores, in 2009, as a communications consultant with The Nature Conservancy. The 36-year-old Jakarta native saw the chance to live on the front porch of Komodo national park as a way to live her dream job, taking journalists and film crews out to see the legendary Komodo dragon during office hours and diving day and night on the weekends.
But something was missing. When Nila wasn’t working or diving, she was visiting smaller villages on the fringes of Labuan Bajo, interacting with the local kids, practicing English and asking them what they wanted to be when they grew up.
She noticed a pattern: the kids had a limited picture of what was out there. Beyond wanting to be fishermen and farmers, very few kids wanted to be anything other than doctors or preachers. Where were the engineers and scientists, the veterinarians and racecar drivers? The answer was in books.
“When I first came up with the idea, I simply wanted to contribute something to the community I lived in,” she said. “To change something in the future, it has to start from the kids. That’s why I came up with an idea to set up children’s libraries.”
What started as a simple way to give back became a life-changing crusade.
“I never thought we would end up with 26 libraries in three and a half years,” Nila said. “Rainbow Reading Gardens would never have grown this fast without the constant support of our volunteers, donors and individual supporters.
“Rainbow Reading Gardens belongs to everyone. This is a people’s movement to nurture children’s interest in reading. People can use Rainbow Reading Gardens as a tool to help others, a bridge for the urban community to the rural community, a tool to make our lives all just a bit more meaningful.”
Although she didn’t quite realize it when she started, Nila was setting off on a social entrepreneurial adventure. Her approach to building libraries is now changing the way people look at education and outreach programs.
Rainbow Reading Gardens has been featured on tvOne, Trans7, the pages of the Jakarta Globe and Kompas as well as earned her accolades like Indonesia’s Inspiring Youth & Women Award 2012.
Nila considers Flores her second home. At the Labuan Bajo airport, where Mandala and TransNusa airlines kindly ship her books free of charge, she meets and shakes hands with everyone from the baggage handlers to the pilots. What started off as a way to interact with local kids on the weekends has grown into a project linking communities across the archipelago.
“I didn’t think it would be as big as it is,” Widhiari said. “I saw that it involves the elders, the housewives, the whole village! Everyone was supporting the project. It was wonderful and I was pleasantly surprised.”
For Havaianas Indonesia brand manager Jana Perazzo, who joined Nila on her latest trip to Melo, dropping off sandals and books was more than just a charity outing — it was an eye-opening experience that left her with a better understanding of what giving back really means.
“I think what struck me most was the feeling that any effort on your part can make a huge difference to these kids,” Perazzo said. “I feel people are often wary of charity efforts, like they’re unsure that the small amount they give could really make a difference to what can seem like a huge problem. I came out of this experience feeling completely the opposite! It’s so inspiring to see firsthand where our efforts have gone and who they’re helping and how much the children are in need of it. ”
The biggest lesson Nila has learned in three years of building libraries is that she can’t do it alone.
“We rely on the volunteers in the remote areas, who manage the libraries as well as volunteers in suburban cities, who help collect the books,” she said. “Local community collaboration is essential to making the libraries sustainable. We can’t do this without the support of local volunteers on each location. We also cannot do this without all the help from our volunteers, donors and supporters, people who donate books, time, money and energy.
“Again, I can’t do this alone. I feel blessed to have so much support from people in Indonesia and around the world.”
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