Syrian Kids, Lebanese Schools: A New “Normal”




When we came inside the tent, the Syrian family of eight welcomed us warmly and urged us to sit close to the small stove in the center for warmth.


While the weather had improved from the previous weeks when a winter storm dropped several inches of snow and temperatures dropped below freezing, it was still very chilly.  It looked like the children were wearing many of the clothes they owned, layer upon layer, though the smallest little girl still had bare feet.  With our Lebanon team translating, we talked and learned how this family fled Syria under fire on their farm near Homs and had been living in this makeshift camp of about 100 families for close to a year.  None of the children, from high school age down to four years old, had been able to go to school since they left home—but their father talked proudly about how they had excelled back in Syria, when all had a house to live in and a school to go to. Now, he said, he feared they would fall so far behind they could never catch up.  And we learned later that several of the children were working as laborers to support the family, something the father was too ashamed to tell the strangers who came to visit.


Child refugees from Syria now number over one million across the region, with an estimated 400,000 in Lebanon alone.  For most of these children, their childhood has been put on hold and for many it will never be revisited.  Many teenagers will most likely never go back to school.  What will this mean for the future of Syria when families are finally able to return?


My first trip to Lebanon since the crisis in Syria was a sobering one.  It is a country of about four million people and is now home to close to one million refugees from Syria—25% of its population.  That’s like if 75 million people suddenly arrived on our borders in Texas or California.  We would certainly be reeling if such a thing happened and the Lebanese are struggling too.  Given the infrastructure challenges of such a huge influx of people, it’s not a surprise that many children have not been able to get into school even two or three years after they left Syria.


Luckily, small efforts are making a big difference for these children. We visited a government school in Bekaa Valley that has agreed to run “second shift” programs for Syrian children.  Here, with support from Save the Children, kids are able to come to school in the afternoons for about three hours, after the regular classes have left, and have basic instruction in math, reading and science in their native languages of Arabic and English.  Some instruction in regular Lebanese classrooms is in French, a language very few Syrian children speak, making it tough for Syrian children to attend regular classes in Lebanon. Though “second shift” does not provide a full day of instruction, dedicated teachers are able to at least keep kids leaning and engaged.  


IMG_5436But probably the biggest benefit of this effort is what being back in the classroom means for these children emotionally.  In stark contrast to the quiet, withdrawn children we met in tents in the makeshift camps, kids at the school were smiling, jumping up eagerly to answer the teacher’s questions, joking and playing with us and just so obviously happy to be in school, a place that seemed to finally make them feel like normal kids again.


It’s heartbreaking to think that millions of kids inside and outside Syria aren’t benefiting from being in a classroom. Save the Children is working hard to make sure that more Syrian children have the chance to get back to school, get back to a (new) “normal” and get back to experiencing the childhood they need and deserve.


You can help the Children of Syria by joining my fundraising team at


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New Boots Bring Hope in Jordan


The kindergarten inside the Za’atari camp in Jordan is a little island of happiness inside a place that is full of tragedy. Here, 3-5 year-old Syrian children living in the huge camp are able to come three times per week in the morning or afternoon to have fun, build social skills and start learning. The brightly colored space, the simple toys, the dedicated young teachers all serve as a respite from the tough, grinding life these children have been living for months or even years in the camp. On my recent visit to Za’atari, the kids got something else too. New winter boots, specially made and provided to Save the Children by TOMS Shoes, were distributed to 9,000 children. As you can see from this video, the reactions were truly wonderful to see.


TOMS is pretty unique among our partners. Many have not supported our efforts for Syria due to fears of political issues within the conflict or lack of focus on the Middle East. But TOMS entire business model is built on the idea that for each pair of shoes purchased, a pair of appropriate shoes will be given to someone who needs them—the company has now given away more than 10 million pairs of shoes worldwide. You won’t find the rubber boots we gave out in Za’atari camp at any shoe store in the U.S.

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or Europe or anywhere else you find TOMS for sale. These boots were made for this specific purpose as part of TOMS “Giving Pair” effort when we pointed out the need for warm boots in the harsh and cold desert area where the camp is located. We’ll be distributing the boots in China and Tajikistan as well to help keep kids warm from the winter chill.



Giving kids a new pair of boots in the middle of chaotic and complex Za’atari may seem like a small thing—and of course we are doing a lot more for children and families in the camp, from providing bread to all 85,000 residents every day to running 39 child friendly spaces and full service kindergartens, and more. But when I slipped a new pair of boots on a little boy’s feet and saw the proud look on his face as he stared at shoes made and delivered just for him, I was reminded that sometimes the small things are the most important.



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2014 Must be a Better Year for Kids


This past year, like so many other years, saw its share of challenges for children around the world. There were the more than one million refugee children who fled Syria, the tens of thousands of young children who lost their homes and loved ones in Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the over 300,000 babies in India that died on their very first day of life this year.


DSC_6020But the children I remember from 2013 were the individual kids I briefly got to know in my travels to our programs around the world.
Here are the stories of just a few of these children who are living in impossible and heartbreaking situations—but looking forward to a brighter future thanks to the efforts of my colleagues and partners around the world:


Exancé was a sad 13 year-old boy, tiny for his age, who I met in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in November. Though he couldn’t tell us all the details of his young life, the haunted look behind his eyes told me that it had already been full of pain. Exancé was found on the streets, living in a filthy alleyway after his parents had turned him out of their house. He was surviving each day by hauling garbage for the fruit and vegetable sellers in the market, paid in scraps of food and a corner to sleep in. One of the vendors in the market is a volunteer for Save the Children and alerts our team when a child is found abandoned and looking for shelter. When I met Exancé, he was in a quiet courtyard meeting with our team, who worked to convince him to

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come with them to the transitional house a few miles from the village market. Here he would get a warm bed, clothes and three meals a day and be enrolled in the local school. His life, though still hard for any child, is finally taking a turn toward something better.


In September, I met a little girl in Pakistan—I never learned her name but I was captivated by her joy in a simple classroom in a remote village. She listened wide-eyed as her teacher, a local woman who was trained in our Early Childhood Development program, went through the alphabet and colors, and led the children in a song that helped them learn the days of the week. Her hand was the first to shoot up when the teacher asked for volunteers to describe the animal pictures each child had proudly stuck to the front wall in the tiny classroom. I later learned that this little girl came from one of the poorest families in the community and that her parents, who never made it past primary school themselves, were determined that their only child would go farther. For a small girl in rural Pakistan, that is a big dream—but one that this amazing little girl can reach thanks to her caring teacher and supportive parents.


Mohammad stands in the doorway to his house in the Domiz Refugee Camp

Nawzad stands in the doorway to his house in the Domiz Refugee Camp

The third child who lodged himself in my memory in 2013 is a shy little 9 year-old boy named Nawzad who peered out at me as I walked down a dusty path inside the Domiz refugee camp in Iraq. He was one of the many Syrian children who had to flee their homes when the shelling and bombing started inside Syria. Now Nawzad lives in a simple cinder block hut in the midst of the sprawling camp—a temporary camp that was built for 10,000 on the northern Iraqi border that now holds close to 50,000 souls, almost half of them children. Save the Children works in the camp to provide education and play spaces for kids and improve the sanitation and health services for children. As I sat and talked with Nawzad and his parents, it was clear that they longed to go back to their simple life in Syria, where his father was a house painter and Nawzad a star student in the local school. Though I don’t know for sure, it’s likely Nawzad and his family are still sitting in the dusty camp as the war rages on toward its third year in his homeland.


I met so many more children this past year and each has his or her own story about the hardships they face due to poverty, war,

or natural calamities. But in each child, as with the three I describe above, there was a fierce desire that things would—and could—get better, that they could improve their lives and futures. My biggest wish for 2014 is that Exancé, Nawzad and that little girl I met in Pakistan have a brighter year, one with less pain and heartache and more joy and happiness. Every child has the right to these basic things.


To all of you who have supported our work, I wish you the best in the New Year and a heartfelt thanks for all you’ve made possible for EVERY child.



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Courageous Work in Freezing Temperatures


With more than half of the United States under a blanket of snow this week, it’s clear that winter is here! The frosty weather has arrived in full force—but it’s not just the Midwest or East Coast where winter is making itself felt. The winter snow storms have started in Lebanon and Jordan, and my Save the Children colleagues abroad are going above and beyond for Syrian refugees.


RS69214_IMG_1841I received an email from our Country Director in Jordan, Saba, who is leading a fearless team in very difficult circumstances. This past weekend, when accumulated snow flooded refugee tents, the team worked through the night to evacuate families to some of our Child Friendly Spaces, which were prepared as emergency shelters. They moved 134 families, including 431 children, into the heated shelters and provided warm clothing, food, mattresses and blankets. Saba noted that, despite the hours and the strain, “we will continue to work as needed” to look after children’s needs.


This snow is the first sign of the treacherous winter in the region that will only increase suffering for children and their families. Between November and February, temperatures can drop well below freezing—and for more than two million refugees

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in the region, one million of them children, the humanitarian crisis will only increase as they struggle to stay warm.


I look forward to traveling to Jordan in January and expressing my thanks in person to Saba and the team in the field. In the meantime, I hope you will support their courageous work and everything they are doing to keep children safe and warm this winter.


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Lending a Dollar in a City of Diamonds



After a weekend in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I traveled to see a Save the Children program in Mbuji Mayi, a city about 600 miles into the interior of the country. On my way to the office, I was amazed by the number of diamond trading outlets along the main streets. Diamond mining is big business but the people who mine them—oftentimes children—receive very little pay in exchange for the gems that people will pay thousands for around the world.

The diamond business is a glaring contrast to the widespread poverty most families face in the DRC. The majority of the population lack access to basic services, with more than half of the population living on less than a dollar a day. In addition, relentless conflict has nearly destroyed the country’s infrastructure and economy in the east. The existence of rich natural resources in

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the DRC actually puts tremendous pressure on poor families; prices for food and basic services are very high due to the influx of outsiders who come to extract and buy products like diamonds. This drives costs up for everyone and is especially hard on those who can least afford it.


But in Mbuji Mayi, communities are taking their financial future into their own hands. I met with Madam Noniyabu, who invited me to join a meeting with members of the local Bubanji micro-credit project. Madam Noniyabu is powerful force for change in her community. She explained to me how the project works: each week, members deposit roughly $1-3 in a group account. Members of the group who require credit make a presentation to the larger group, which then weighs the benefits and votes on where they will invest. Most of the time, credit is extended to those who have strong ideas for starting or expanding their businesses. The goal is to help local business owners support their families and children with business grants, and use a small amount of interest to help community members in tough circumstances. Madam Noniyabiu is tough but fair—I watched as she admonished a late-paying member of the lending group and then gave a generous grant to help a woman who had just lost her husband.


By working as a community, this micro-credit group makes low-cost loans available through a community structure. Community members are able to help each other rather than relying on banks that charge up to 50% interest, and they use the funding to give the children of the community a boost.


For poor children living in impoverished areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, living in a family with some financial security improves their changes for a better childhood and a better life. To a family struggling to survive, small-scale community loans to help them build their businesses and provide for their children is worth more than gold—or even diamonds.


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On the Streets of Kinshasa, Finding the Path Back to Childhood


Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is as busy a place as any in the world. There are swarms of people, crowded streets and traffic jams. The streets of Kinshasa are always bustling—but for a child growing up on

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the streets, it is one of the toughest places I have seen for anything resembling a happy childhood. So Save the Children is working in Kinshasa to strengthen family and community networks to prevent family separation caused when families are too poor to support their kids and provide assistance to children in need.


When I traveled to DRC earlier this month I met Exancé, a 13 year-old boy who calls the Kinshasa streets home. Exancé had been expelled from his family when his parent’s marriage failed—not an uncommon occurrence. The break-up of his family led him to a secluded courtyard by a city marketplace, where he begged for food from traders or money from passing motorists. He was hungry, withdrawn and so far removed from the life that a 13 year-old should have. But thanks to a local merchant who volunteers for Save the Children to identify at-risk street children, was placed in a safe place to live—a transitional center run by a local partner—and have a chance to reclaim some of the sense of childhood that he lost. Best of all, the world to try to reconnect him to his parents would begin.


Exancé is one of the lucky ones, and safe accommodation may make all the difference. At one such residential center for young boys, Centre BanayaPoverda, I met Gabriel—a 15 year-old whose story is very much a parallel to Exancé’s. When his father remarried after the death of his mother, he was beaten and kicked out of the house with no other option than to join the

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thousands of other street children. But when he found a place at BanayaPoverda, he got the opportunity to attend school and work with a social worker who is now trying to find him a foster family. Chatting with Gabriel, I was struck by how animated and engaged he was—and how different from Exancé, that quiet, tiny boy I met in the market. Gabriel has made friends at the center and is making plans to become a tailor after he finishes school.


These centers provide so much more than shelter. Children are fed, enrolled in school and supervised, but they’re also taught responsibility—they take care of the center and of each other. The objective in every case is to reunite the children with their own families or find them foster families, to provide them with the family unit that it so crucial in children’s lives.


Exancé and Gabriel’s stories started in the same way, but their experiences as street children were so different that it could have affected their lives in

starkly different ways. Now that Exancé is in a similar situation, I hope that they can both look forward to what’s next and make plans for their own futures.

For now, though, it’s enough that they have a safe place to sleep and people looking out for them so they can enjoy being children again. In hectic Kinshasa, it can be incredibly difficult to find the path back to childhood when it has been interrupted—but Save the Children is doing all we can to help point the way.

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On the Ground in the Philippines: Helping Kids after Typhoon Haiyan


This morning, children and families in the Philippines woke up to another day of fear, uncertainty and devastation. After one of the worst storms to hit the Philippines—and one of the strongest storms ever recorded—ripped through the islands on Friday, the nation is struggling to cope with the scale of what they have lost and how they can begin to recover.


Save the Children response teams are already on the ground, working to reach families and children and help them get access to the basics: food, water and medical treatment. We have been working in the Philippines for 30 years, so we were ready to jump into action when Typhoon Haiyan passed…but the impact on children is still not fully known. For now, they urgently need food, shelter and medicine.

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In the coming weeks and months, they will need reassurance, structure and a return to some kind of normalcy. We’re there now and we’ll be there for however long they need us.


If you can, please help families who have lost everything. Support our Typhoon Haiyan Relief Effort as we mobilize our disaster response teams to reach children in need.


The storm has passed but the danger is not yet over. Help us do all we can for children and families in the Philippines, to ensure that tomorrow is better than today.

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A Race to Save Lives on the Line


Drew, 11, pins a number on his t-shirt and stands beneath the palm trees bordering the track, waiting for his turn. His teammate crosses the line and hands him the baton, and then Drew is off and running as fast as he can.


Drew is one of more than 50,000 kids globally – 12,000 in the United States alone – who are hitting the ground running this month for Save the Children’s World Marathon Challenge(#WMC2013). The World Marathon Challenge is a relay race where kids team up and attempt to run a full marathon distance and to beat the world marathon record of 2 hours, 3 minutes and 23 seconds.


2013-10-22-601by400.jpgFormer NFL running back Vince Workman warming up members of the Wilton High School sports teams for the World Marathon Challenge in Wilton, Conn. on Oct. 14. Photo by Susan Warner for Save the Children.


It is a fun event, and kids can get extremely competitive in trying to beat the world record. But they are also running for a more important reason: to raise awareness for the millions of children whose lives are on the line and funds to help those who save them. Every five seconds, a child dies from preventable causes like dehydration from a bout of diarrhea because proper medicines and trained health workers are not universally available. In the time it will take for children to run a record-breaking marathon, 1,481 children will die needlessly.


If there is a silver lining in all of this, it is that just a generation ago, these figures would have been twice as bad. Through U.S. government leadership and global commitment, the number of deaths to children under five declined to 6.6 million in 2012, from 12.6 million in 1990. When I think of the faces behind these numbers, I look at the kids taking on the challenge this month. They and millions more are alive today because of the historic progress made in reducing child mortality in places like Ethiopia, India and Mozambique.


While this is good news, we need to do better. We continue to lose children to pneumonia, diarrhea and malaria and we know how to prevent those deaths. And then, we need to do more in three areas where we have not yet made sufficient headway: reaching the poorest children with life-saving measures, ensuring all newborns get proper care; and providing children with good nutrition so they stay healthy and strong enough to fight off life-threatening illnesses. With adequate public support and appropriate levels of government investment in these areas, we can dramatically cut child mortality and give hope to families that their babies will have more than a slim chance of reaching age five.


That is why Save the Children is holding a global day of action this Wednesday, Oct. 23, where kids in 67 countries will run and raise their voices to highlight the need to give every child the very best chance to live a bright future, and will urge their elected officials to take action. Hundreds of teams around the globe, including schools from Connecticut to California, will race in solidarity on that day.


2013-10-22-601by400double.jpgA member of the Boca Raton Little League runs a relay lap at a race in Boca Raton, Fla. on Oct. 18. Photo by Angel Valentin.


In addition, here in the United States, Save the Children will share with members of Congress personal messages from kids taking part in the race. T-shirts will be signed with a message that reminds our legislators that their youngest constituents “run for children – do they?” Save the Children will urge Congress to unite in a common cause that enjoys bipartisan support and renew their efforts to reduce preventable child deaths globally.



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American children who are running entered kindergarten at age five with little idea what a huge victory reaching age five truly is. I imagine some will celebrate breaking the world record, but I am thinking about the birthday parties for those 5-year-olds around the world who, without continued effort, would never have completed the race.

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post
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Put the Frontline Health Worker Into the Post-2015 Framework


This post previously appeared in the Huffington Post and on the Skoll World Forum.


As world leaders gather this week to discuss the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals and the Post-2015 Framework, no subject of conversation will be more important than the need for more frontline health care workers. In the last two decades, the world has made tremendous progress in reducing child and maternal mortality, due in no small part to the contributions of the local health worker delivering lifesaving care. Millions of people in impoverished countries are alive today because a midwife was by their side when they gave birth, or they were vaccinated as infants by a nurse, or because their families learned from a community health worker to adopt healthy behaviors like breastfeeding, hand washing, birth spacing, and sleeping under a mosquito net.


I saw the lifesaving power of local health workers first-hand last month when I visited Save the Children’s programs in Pakistan, a country with some of the worst health indicators on the planet. According to our latest State of the World’s Mothers report, the lifetime risk of maternal death–the probability that a 15 year old woman will eventually die from a maternal cause–is 1 in 110 in Pakistan. Compare this to the United States, where it’s 1 in 2,400 and you see my point. Pakistan’s children aren’t any better than their moms. For every 1,000 children born, 72 of them will die before they reach the pivotal age of five, more than ten times the rate of their American counterparts.


But as harrowing as these statistics are, you would never know it from visiting the maternal and child health clinic in Haripur district. It is one of the most impressive facilities I have seen anywhere in the world at the primary care, or village, level. The spotlessly clean unit is staffed by two female doctors and several nursing staff as well as a pharmacist–all health care workers. A warehouse stocked with supplies is available on-site and the facility provides services 24/7 as needed. Women come here for prenatal visits, for family planning counseling and products, and to give birth in a simple, clean and safe facility with excellent care. Three women were in labor the day I visited and when I saw the care they received, I knew I would have felt comfortable having one of my own children there.


Unfortunately, not everyone in Pakistan–or the rest of the world for that matter–is as lucky to have a health worker in such close proximity. By some estimates, there is a shortage of at least 1 million frontline health workers in the developing world. And many existing health workers are not trained, equipped and supported to deliver basic lifesaving care close to the community. The consequence of failing to close this gap is grave. Every 3 seconds, a child’s death is prevented thanks to care provided by a frontline health worker. When a health worker is not accessible, the situation is, predictably, far less rosy.


The challenge for all of us in the business of saving mothers’ and children’s lives is to ensure that every person, no matter where they live in the world, is within reach of a health worker. We can–and should–start at the UN General Assembly, and continue the drumbeat at the Third Global Forum on Human Resources for Health in Recife, Brazil in November. But, it will take more than a few high-level meetings to make this a reality. That’s why Save the Children, in partnership with the Frontline Health Workers Coalition, created The REAL Awards, a first-of-its-kind, annual global awards platform designed to develop greater respect and appreciation for the lifesaving care that health workers provide in the U.S. and around the world. Anyone can take a few moments to nominate an inspiring health worker and help spread the word about the countless unsung heroes who go above and beyond the call of duty. It will make a REAL difference.

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Spreading the Love of Reading Beyond School Walls


Some of my favorite childhood memories involve curling up with a good book and embarking on a world of adventures unfolding on each page. But for 250 million children around the world who cannot read or write, getting lost in a story is a pleasure they may never get to experience.


For me, it’s hard to imagine myself flipping through a book and only seeing pages full of symbols, unaware of their meaning or the stories they tell. But for more than a third of all primary-school age children around the world, that’s a reality they face every day. And going to school is not enough to guarantee learning.


Too many children around the world are at risk of never learning to read or read well, whether they attend school or not. Children like 10-year-old Sita from Nepal. Sita lives in Budhathok village, a remote farming community, where the nearest market is 90 minutes by car (if you’re lucky to have a car), families are struggling to make ends meet, and books and time for reading are a luxury they often can’t afford.


Sita, 10, reads at home with books borrowed from Save the Children’s mobile library in her village in rural Nepal. Save the Children’s new literacy report proves that practice outside the classroom is the key to learning to read, especially among girls, children living in poverty and those with few books or readers at home. Photo by Sanjana Shrestha.


Knowing the importance of practicing reading at home, Save the Children brought a mobile library to Sita’s village through our Literacy Boost program, an initiative designed to help improve children’s reading ability by measuring their skill level, training teachers and engaging communities. Now Sita and her younger sister Tej, nine — both eager participants of our program — have become avid readers who look forward to selecting stories from a trunk full of books and taking them home.


The two girls and many children like them are living proof of the findings revealed in Save the Children’s new study, Beyond School Walls: A Boost for Readers. In it, Save the Children reviewed results from the first year of our Literacy Boost program in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Malawi, Mozambique, Nepal, Pakistan and Zimbabwe.


The research proves what Save the Children has long believed to be true: practice outside the classroom is the key to learning to read, especially among girls, children living in poverty and those with few books or readers at home.


Take a look at a snapshot of our results:


• Girls attending Literacy Boost learned 6.5 times more letters of the alphabet in Pakistan, and 2.5 times more letters in Nepal, than female students who were not in the program.
• In Zimbabwe and Pakistan, female students participating in Literacy Boost made nearly twice as much progress in reading words and sentences correctly than girls not enrolled in the program.
• In Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, Literacy Boost students from homes with the fewest books more than doubled their word-reading ability over the course of the year.
• In Pakistan, children living in extreme poverty who participate in Literacy Boost were 91.6 percent more likely to stay in school than their peers who are not in the program.


Help spread the love of reading in your home and around the world:


• Talk and read to a child every day to introduce new words into their vocabulary.
• Promote reading during everyday activities like shopping, cooking and running errands.
• Tell your elected officials in Washington, D.C. that you support U.S. investments and policies to help kids learn to read around the globe.


Interested in learning more? Check out the full report, watch a short video and read more about Literacy Boost.

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