How many people does it take to change a light bulb in a rural South African school?

None. Because there’s probably no electricity. And why do you need light, anyway, if there are no books to read or lessons to learn? In any case, if you really need light, there’s plenty coming through the hole in the classroom roof.

Welcome to the reality of education for many of SA’s rural children. Things that urban schools take for granted — like books, pencils, electricity, desks, running water and sanitation — are mere dreams for some of their remote counterparts. Provincial education budgets are spent mainly where the big populations are. But what of distant schools serving rural communities? If you’re a child living on a Zululand mountainside, in a Transkei valley or in a dusty Kalahari kraal, chances are that your school will receive only budget leftovers.

It truly is a case of out of sight, out of mind.

But it doesn’t have to be so. Since 1998, Rally to Read has created the opportunity to transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of SA children. By revitalising neglected schools, the programme has introduced reading and writing skills where, previously, illiteracy was the norm.

The award-winning programme, in which the FM is a partner, has been so successful that national government education officials have used it as a case study to help them overcome their own system failures.

The Rally to Read model is not complicated. Sponsors’ money buys educational materials and teacher training for primary schools. The materials include portable classroom libraries containing colourful books for classroom and private reading. Each school is supported for three years, during which trainers from the Read Educational Trust NGO provide ongoing teacher support and monitor learners’ progress.

Research has shown that a typical rural 14-year-old has a reading and writing age of seven but that Rally to Read’s intervention rapidly closes the gap.

For sponsors, there’s more to the programme than handing over the money and assuming it will be well spent. At no extra cost, sponsors and up to three guests (work colleagues or family) are invited to join organisers in handing over libraries and other goods at schools. There, they meet children, families and community leaders and see for themselves the enormous challenges still faced by many South Africans.

There’s a reason there’s a "Rally" in the programme title. Convoys of offroad vehicles travel through parts of SA rarely seen by tourists. Depending on weather conditions, some schools are accessible only by 4x4. Most can be reached with less hardy vehicles but this is not a venture for ordinary cars. That’s because sponsors carry libraries, stationery, sports equipment and other goods with them. If they don’t have bakkies or sports utility vehicles of their own, these can be rented at a discounted rate through the organisers.

Most rallies are weekend events. Participants meet early Saturday morning to load their vehicles, then split into groups, to visit two schools each. Afterwards, everyone congregates at a hotel where they will spend the night. At dinner that evening, groups share their experiences and give feedback. Sunday morning usually starts with an excursion to a local place of interest before everyone heads for home.

There will be five rallies in 2018. The KwaZulu-Natal rally, sponsored by Shell, is an experimental, one-day concept, beginning and ending on Saturday. Other rallies — in the Free State, the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and the Western Cape — are intended to follow traditional patterns.

Three rally dates have been confirmed so far. Transport group OneLogix, formerly United Bulk, which has hosted the Free State rally for nearly 20 years, will do so again this year on September 8-9. Mercedes-Benz SA, another long-standing Rally to Read supporter, will be in the Eastern Cape on September 15-16. The Western Cape rally will take place on October 27-28. Dates have still to be confirmed for Mpumalanga — which will be hosted by talent management and workforce solutions company Adcorp — and for KwaZulu-Natal.

For more information, and to find out how to become a sponsor, visit rallytoread.co.za.