What kind of country, battling tumbling education standards, skills shortages and huge unemployment, prevents its children from acquiring the knowledge that could transform SA’s future?

How many potential teachers has SA lost through lack of education? How many doctors, engineers, nurses, mechanics, technicians? How many entrepreneurs, each of whom might have created dozens, even hundreds of jobs?

It’s a sad fact of life that while politicians make maximum capital out of supposed crises in urban schools, the biggest education crisis of all is ignored. Hundreds of thousands of SA primary-school children in rural areas receive almost no practical education because, simply, almost no-one cares.

Luckily, a few do. Since 1998, Rally to Read has taken literacy into remote corners of SA where education officials rarely set foot and even more rarely provide teaching materials. Rally to Read provides books, stationery, teacher training, learner support and even sports equipment. Its backers want all SA children to have a shot at a future.

What does this have to do with FM readers? Rally to Read, in which the FM is a partner, is not an anonymous NGO but a hands-on, practical programme that relies on the generosity and time of corporate and private sponsors.

The project’s impact is unquestionable. Independent studies show children at Rally to Read schools take great leaps forward in reading and writing. Once condemned to a life of illiteracy, they are instead equipped for high school and beyond.

Growing numbers of children who learnt their first lessons through Rally to Read, are emerging successfully from university — some the beneficiaries of bursaries provided by Rally supporters.

Some children destined for success just need a nudge — like the 12-year-old KwaZulu-Natal girl found teaching a class of children of her age in a mountainside school because their real teacher rarely turned up. What was the point, this teacher figured, if there were no books or pencils? The 12-year-old reasoned that if she didn’t use what few resources were available, no-one else would. Her control over a classroom of peers was extraordinary. They, like her, were desperate to learn.

Rally to Read sponsors don’t just hear about these cases; they see them for themselves. A R35,000 sponsorship provides a school with learning materials, including portable classroom libraries, and teacher training from the Read Educational Trust.

At no extra cost, sponsors and up to three companions (work colleagues or family, including children of any age) spend a weekend delivering their goods in person. Convoys of offroad vehicles travel through rarely seen parts of SA to remote schools, where they meet children, families and communities. Each school is supported for at least three years and sponsors who stay the course are able to see year-by-year progress. It’s not just in reading and writing skills but also in self-confidence.

For most of these children, Rally to Read is the first sign that anyone else cares about them, and the transition from withdrawn to confident is remarkable.

Rally weekends usually start early Saturday morning, with the loading of materials on the back of bakkies and other offroad-capable vehicles. For sponsors without such vehicles, organisers have arranged discounted rates with a national car rental company.

Convoys split up into smaller groups, each of which visits two schools. Afterwards, they all meet up again at a convenient location, usually a hotel, where they spend the night. Over dinner, team leaders and sponsors share experiences. Food and accommodation are paid for by hosts. Sunday morning is usually spent on a local excursion before everyone heads home.

There are four rallies in 2018. It was five but the host of the Mpumalanga event has pulled out after running into budgetary problems. Of the remaining four, an experimental one-day rally, hosted by Shell, is already full.

There is still space on the other three. The first, on September 8-9, is hosted by transport company OneLogix and will support schools around Reitz, Petrus Steyn and Tweeling in the Free State. The following weekend, September 15-16, Mercedes-Benz SA will lead sponsors into the rural areas of the old Transkei, around Butterworth. Then there’s a gap until October 27-28, when the SABC and Jonsson Workwear are among companies that will lead convoys into the Winelands region around Robertson.

For more information and details on how to become a sponsor, visit rallytoread.co.za