PETALING JAYA: How many of us can say that a dream we once had took off in such a big way that it brought pleasure and life skills to thousands of children?
Cheli Nadarajah is one person who can.
Books are stacked high in the Homework Centre’s book closet. They are all brand new and destined to be given away to children who would otherwise usually not have access to books at all.
Nadarajah is the founder of The Reading Bus Club, an NGO which started as a way of getting new books to children in rural communities in Sarawak to enable them to learn to read, especially in English.
The Reading Bus Club started by visiting villages a few hours out of Kuching by road, driving books and volunteers to read to and interact with the children.
Kampung children learned grammar and vocabulary through storytelling, activities and games.
Villagers and volunteers alike were surprised by how quickly the children learned to read and even speak English.
The Reading Bus Club and Homework Centre’s original mission endures: that every child should be given the opportunity to enjoy school and life through reading.
The Homework Centre declares it is a place where children are guided to be Purposeful, Passionate and Productive.
Nadarajah’s project expanded nationwide from Sarawak, even into Cambodia via the Reading Tuk-tuk club, and has been going strong for 10 years now.
English Language teachers from schools across the nation attend Reading Bus Club creative training courses on How To Make English Fun In School.
Nadarajah was originally inspired to help poorer children learn to read by his own passion for books, which developed from a very young age.
Growing up in a poor family, books were hard to come by. “At school I always worked very hard to come first or second in class because whoever got those positions would be given books,” he told FMT.
He and his wife, Kong Lai Mei, started the Reading Bus Club as an attempt to bridge the lack of English awareness among children living in rural areas of Sarawak.
The Club gave children a positive environment in which to do their homework.
But then, when over 9,000 books were donated to them, Nadarajah and his wife expanded their operations, setting out in their car to reach children in more remote villages.
Nowadays they and their volunteers use a fleet of Toyota Land Cruisers to visit their eager children.
“The kids call them buses because in rural Sarawak they hardly ever see large vehicles, so anytime they see something bigger than a car, they call it a bus,” he laughed.
The name stuck, but thankfully it is now rare for their Land Cruisers to get bogged down as they follow their routes around the jungles of the nation.
The club is still a family concern. The 59-year-old teacher said, “My wife and I work very closely together, and both our sons are really supportive.”
Nadarajah remembers the very first village the club visited.
“We brought out the books and were shocked because the kids asked if they were allowed to touch them.
“Their parents told me that at school they were not allowed to touch any books because of their dirty fingernails.”
When they handed out the books that day, the first thing the children did was to sniff them, breathing in that new-book smell probably for the very first time.
The Reading Bus Club, has by now given books to and taught around 40,000 children from all over the country.
For Nadarajah, the club’s mission is not merely to teach children but to provide them with self-confidence. “We wanted them to choose their own books rather than for us to dictate what they should read.”
Word of mouth has always been very important.
“A villager told me that his children came home every day telling him that children from other villages were learning to speak English. When he asked them how, they said it was from the Reading Bus.
“I really broke down because that was so encouraging to hear.”
Talking to FMT, Nadarajah also addressed issues plaguing the current education system in the country.
“I think the schools are failing their children because we have really never taken the time to teach them how to appreciate reading. Normally reading is so tied to exams.”
It is obvious that he is still shocked and pleased by the success of his venture. “I did not plan this. When I first started the homework centre I never foresaw the Reading Bus Club.”
His dream to make reading and learning English fun has brought wonder and lifelong skills to children from further afield than he ever imagined.
Although this bus always stops to help children learn, paradoxically it’s showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon.