Last year, when our daughter Ayla turned three, we went the predictable three-year-old birthday party route. Reluctant to have her twenty friends in our NY apartment, we rented a small children’s party area, had some food delivered, got a cake, prepared games, and bought party favors. It was not an extravagant event by any means, but nonetheless the day cost us well over a thousand dollars. For her part, Ayla cried through the cake cutting, unhappy with all the attention. Otherwise she, and the other children, ran around like chickens with their heads cut off: with no discernible rhyme or reason. Overall the whole event was chaotic, exhausting and expensive for us, and not too memorable for her.
There had to be a better way.
As Ayla’s fourth birthday loomed on us this year, my husband and I sat and discussed our options. We knew we wanted to celebrate her birth by doing something meaningful, but what? I remembered a conversation I had with Şenay Ataselim Yilmaz, the COO of Turkish Philanthropy Funds, a public charity that specializes in working with budding philanthropists. Şenay had told me that if I ever wanted to start a charity campaign, they would work with me every step of the way. They would collect the donations, thus ensuring that they were tax-deductible. They would also be instrumental once the money had been collected. They would do the due diligence of the non-profit organizations we would ultimately partner with to accomplish our goal. In short, they would follow the process start to finish.
But what should our campaign be about?
The answer to that question came, appropriately, from Ayla. Our daughter loves to read as much as her parents do. Her room and her life are teeming with books. Nonetheless, when we asked her what gift she wanted for her birthday, she answered without hesitation: More books. It got us thinking. The world is filled with curious little girls. What happens to the ones who do not have access to books?
I knew that in my home country of Turkey, especially in its eastern-most regions, children’s books are a luxury item, practically unattainable. Let’s put it this way: According to a 2011 census by the Turkish Statistical Institute, the bottom 20% of Turkish families living in rural areas had about 200 Turkish Lira (TL) as their monthly disposable income. That income must ultimately shelter, clothe and feed a whole family for an entire month. Imagine that you lived off of that 200 TL (approximately $128). A kilogram of potatoes costs 1 TL. A kilogram of tomatoes costs 3 TL. A t-shirt costs 5 TL. Meanwhile a colorful hardcover children’s book costs up to 15 TL. What would you buy?
Certainly not the children’s book.
But, when we tried to imagine our lives without any books, we simply couldn’t. Books invade every nook and cranny of our home. Both our children have bedtime rituals that revolve heavily around their favorite books. Books are their go-to toys. We have come to believe that these books are the cornerstone of their development and education. We wanted to make sure that little kids in Turkey had the same opportunity to love books the way that our children did.
But the process went one step further. Old customs and traditions still dictate the way of life in many rural parts of Turkey. Consequently, female children are often not given anywhere near the same advancement and education opportunities as their brothers. In fact, in some provinces, more than half of the girls between the ages of six and fourteen are kept out of school. Some of these children remain illiterate their entire lives. Knowing this, we felt that our efforts would have a greater impact if we could target these little girls. We had a simple plan. To provide each little girl child with a book – a durable, colorful, imaginative book. Something they could long hold onto and cherish. Something that would let them know, implicitly and explicitly, that much was expected of them.
And so the concept of ‘Ayla’s Books’ was born. My husband, Mark, and I made the initial investment – our birthday present to our daughter. (And what we felt was a much better use of our funds than throwing yet another chaotic birthday party.) Then we set about creating a website (www.aylasbooks.com) to explain our idea and our intent. We linked the website to its mirror site at tpfund.org. And got busy promoting to family, friends, and friends of friends.
We expected to spend months fundraising to meet our initial target of $20,000. We reached our goal in just 24 days. The average donation amount, excluding our initial seed capital, was $139. More than 59% of the funds were donated by our American friends with no cultural ties to Turkey. The remainder was donated by Turkish-Americans. Overall, the whole fundraising process was incredibly simple. In fact, what we did, anyone could do.
The hard part, of course, starts now. We feel our friends and family have trusted us with their hard-earned money to brighten the lives and futures of little girls in Turkey. With abundant help from TPF, we aim to do just that. We will pick out wonderful, colorful, durable books. We will carefully select our non-profit partners in Turkey, and then make sure that they distribute our books in the most cost-effective way possible. The process may take some time, a few months even. But that’s okay. We want to make sure it is done right. And we know that TPF will guide us in the right direction.
Ayla celebrated her fourth birthday with just us. And yet, she was infinitely happier blowing out her candles this year. While she is too young to truly understand the consequences of her small sacrifice, we cannot wait until we can tell about how her love of reading snowballed into a landslide of generosity and goodwill – with a little bit of help from her friends at TPF.