Rally to Read. Picture: Supplied
Rally to Read. Picture: Supplied

It’s tempting, when business conditions are tough, to cut back on the things you consider luxuries. How many CEOs have pared their company’s marketing budget (but not their personal expense accounts), as if marketing is an unnecessary cost, rather than a generator of revenue.

Corporate social investment falls into the same category. Lop off a programme or two, and maybe you can reinstate them a couple of years down the line when business is looking better.

But better for whom? Take rural education. Suspension of support is not a temporary inconvenience. It’s a death knell for the future of thousands of children. Budget cutbacks are not an option. By the time the money comes on stream again, it’s too late for those whose key learning years have been lost.

Sponsors of Rally to Read, the rural schools programme celebrating its 21st birthday in 2019, have been defiantly loyal since it launched in 1998. They recognise that the provision of literacy and upliftment of under-resourced primary schools is a long-term commitment.

That’s why Rally to Read supports each school with educational materials and teacher training for three years. That’s the minimum time it takes to get schools back on their feet and for a culture of reading and writing to become embedded.

Since 1998, the programme, in which the FM is a partner, has been taken to 1,600 remote primary schools, 12,000 teachers and 250,000 children. Those numbers are about to grow further. Five weekend rallies will shortly change the future for thousands more rural children.

Rally to Read organisers are putting the finishing touches to this year’s programme but there is still time for more sponsors to join in. Rally to Read is unique in that you don’t have to take our word that it works. You come and see for yourself. Weekend rallies — some lasting one day, others two — allow sponsors to meet the people they are helping. Convoys of offroad vehicles visit far-flung schools where education budgets are never enough. Books and stationery are scarce at best, often lacking altogether.

Dates to diarise

There are five Rally to Read rallies left in 2019. Ford hosted an event in Mpumalanga early this year. Other dates are as follows:

• August 31 (single-day rally): KwaZulu-Natal (Richmond, Pietermaritzburg region);

• September 7-8: Free State (Reitz, Petrus Steyn, Tweeling);

• September 14-15: KwaZulu-Natal (Bergville);

• October 12 (single-day rally): Eastern Cape (inland from Kidd’s Beach); and

• October 19-20: Western Cape (Villiersdorp, Wolseley).

Children and teachers alike are demotivated. The average 14-year-old rural child has a reading age of seven.

It costs R36,000 to become a full sponsor in 2019, though we also have an R18,000 package for small companies and private supporters — some of whom club together to come on weekends. Of that, 60% goes towards portable classroom libraries and other educational materials, and the rest on teacher training. Some sponsors provide add-ons at their own expense. Every rally school receives sports goods such as footballs, netballs and rugby balls.

Sponsors pay nothing for the weekend experience, which often takes them through spectacular parts of SA they would not normally see. Accommodation and meal costs are borne by our host partners — Ford Southern Africa, Mercedes-Benz SA, Shell SA, the OneLogix transport group, and the Jonsson Foundation, which is Rally to Read’s new lead partner, underwriting many of the programme’s costs.

Rally to Read’s impact is undeniable. The reading-age gap is quickly bridged. Children who would once have dropped out of education on leaving primary school, unable to read or write, are now progressing to high school and, in rising numbers, to university.

Our sponsors see all this for themselves. Many like to visit the same schools each year, to see the steady progress of "their" children. Schools vary wildly in size. Some accommodate a couple of dozen children, others cram hundreds into ramshackle buildings. What they all have in common is lack of resources — some have no electricity or sanitation — and a burning desire for their children to succeed. Rally to Read accepts only schools where principals, teachers and the local community show commitment to the programme.

Significantly, Rally to Read is supported by provincial education departments, which acknowledge their limited budgets are not enough to meet the needs of the most remote schools.

For more information, or to become a sponsor, visit rallytoread.co.za. Or contact Brand Pretorius on brand@brandpretorius.com

What it means

Seeing for themselves that the programme works has bred a remarkable sense of loyalty among Rally to Read supporters