Vrishank Sai Anand was four and a half years old when he approached his mother and offered to organize a book drive for underprivileged children. He’d listened to his mother talk about the number of children around the world who haven’t had access to books since he was little, so it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Yet as the 11-year-old recounts the incident during our Zoom interview, a sense of dread and mild disbelief washes over us. A four-year-old talking about books in the 21st century? “Vrishank was one of the first communicators”, explains his mother Rajalakshmi alias Raji. “He was actually able to talk when he was 18 months old.”
The boy from Dubai is the youngest volunteer for Storytime, which is a network of 145 volunteers spread across the world. Founded in India, the network enables communities requesting help – such as schools in rural areas – to create reading spaces for themselves by providing resources, funds, books and furniture. Vrishank has helped donate over 2,000 books through five book donation campaigns with the help of his mother and his school, GEMS Modern Academy. He estimates that the books donated by the Dubai section of the network have helped to establish at least seven libraries in India, although it is difficult to get an exact number as the books are shipped across the country. “Vrishank has been supporting us since he was in kindergarten,” says Storytime founder Noel Benno, adding that they’ve established 47 libraries in 11 states for underprivileged schools and communities. “He took the initiative to lead book donation campaigns and was one of our champions.”
Connect through books
From the start, Vrishank and Raji communicated with each other through the language of the books. “I’m an avid reader,” she says. “I used to read aloud and continued to do so when I was pregnant.”
Before moving to Dubai, the family resided in Singapore where Raji used to take Vrishank to the neighborhood library in his stroller. “Singapore has this wonderful system of community libraries and you could find a library just across your street. And during the summer holidays you could check up to 40 books! is always done through books and I told him many stories about how easy we can go to Amazon or Kinokuniya to buy books and how not all children are so privileged. He was mature enough to realize that the world is not equal.
When the family moved to Dubai in 2014, their first task was to find a good library. “We used to take the metro and visit the old DUCTAC library, Mall of the Emirates,” says Vrishank. Around this time, Raji discovered Storytime, through a random Google search. “I’m always looking for volunteer opportunities in education. So I contacted Noel and asked him how I could help. Vrishank’s suggestion to donate his books couldn’t have come at a better time – the two were eager to do more.
Initially, the duo’s first book donation campaign began as a more individual effort. “We put up flyers, brochures and a box and knocked on neighbors’ doors for books,” smiles Vrishank. They managed to collect about 70 books but realized they needed to strengthen the initiative. “When we managed to collect 70 pounds just by approaching our neighbors, we realized there was great potential to collect more pounds,” he says. So they approached his school and explained what the Storytime initiative was all about. “Coincidentally, it was also Literacy Week at my school and my supervisor graciously agreed to lead a book donation campaign and sent a note to all parents of kindergarten and elementary students at My father and I went on stage to explain the initiative to the students. The school organized a book donation campaign at the end of the year school camp and Raji and her husband went to collect about 300 books. The school continues to conduct such book donation campaigns reaching out to its community of students and parents, and has managed to collect 300-400 books each time.
books for everyone
The next formidable challenge was to ship the books to India at a reasonable price. “When we visit India about twice a year, we only carry these books and nothing else – between me, my mother, my father and my grandmother, we are able to carry the books,” says Vrishank . The family is from Chennai in southern India, so the first time they traveled with the books to the city, they also visited two government schools in Velachery and Tondiarpet to personally hand over the books. “We visited with the 2nd and 4th graders and I remember they started reading the books as soon as they got them,” he says. Over the next few years, books from Dubai were donated to establish libraries in Perambur, Arumbakkam, Pallathur (all in Tamil Nadu) and Chandapura in Karnataka, among others. “Sometimes we keep the books at my grandparents house in Chennai and a story time volunteer picks them up from there. Later, they send pictures of the libraries we helped set up,” says Vrishank.
In 2020, Noel’s former classmate Lalcha approached him to provide funds, books and infrastructure support to the L. Gamnoum village public library in Manipur. Shipping the books from Dubai was impossible as Covid-19 raged across the world. “Vrishank attends The Hive acting school and its executive director Malavika Varadan heard about Storytime and our initiative,” says Raji. “She started the #YourStoryMatters campaign to encourage children in the school to write and submit their stories. The Hive and Malavika donated one book per story…” The campaign ended with a total of 270 entries and they funded over 300 books. Lalcha, who led the Manipur initiative with some young locals, sent an organized list of books. “Noel, Malavika and I identified a wholesaler in India to buy the books from,” says Raji.
More recently, a former student at a small public school in Kalimpong, West Bengal contacted Storytime for help. Raji and Vrishank say the Hive team has offered to store the books in their space until the logistics of their shipment are determined. “Finally, the father of a former student, Mr. Paul, who works in the freight industry, came forward to ship the books to Kalimpong. Once the books were shipped, we realized that the space of the library needed shelves, tables and chairs, so Malavika, my husband and I pooled money for that,” says Raji.
Vrishank and Raji aim to support Storytime’s vision of creating 100 such library spaces by 2025. They also have other projects in mind. “Our dream is to set up a mobile library in India, and to make it sustainable,” she smiles.