By Azka Asif, Rotary Service and Engagement Staff in collaboration with Susan Hanf, Rotary Heritage Communications Staff
Every year, International Literacy Day is celebrated worldwide by bringing together governments, multi-and bi-lateral organizations, NGOs, the private sector, communities, teachers, learners and experts in the field. Today, 8 September, on the 50th anniversary of International Literacy Day, we join the global community in celebrating decades of progress made towards increasing literacy rates around the world.
We are honoring this year’s theme of Reading the Past, Writing the Future by taking a look back at education and literacy in Rotary throughout the years, and looking ahead to find innovative solutions to current challenges standing in the way of quality education and lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Education and literacy throughout Rotary’s history
In March 1930, Ray Lyman Wilbur, the United States Secretary of the Interior, asked Rotary and other service organizations to take an active leadership role in the reduction of illiteracy in the United States. Rotary Clubs across the US took Wilbur’s requested seriously:
- The Rotary Club of Martinsville, Virginia, sponsored a talent show with proceeds supporting adult literacy classes.
- Members of the Rotary Club of Blairsville, Pennsylvania offered a class on reading and writing for local adults.
- The Rotary Club of Ada, Ohio, surveyed the educational needs of children and adults in a nearby farming community and with the help of other local service organizations, began offering classes in reading and writing. 
During the 1930-31 Rotary year, Rotary clubs began to recognize the importance of supporting general education. The Rotary Club of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, established a loan fund to help boys finish high school, and by August 1930 had helped to fund the high school educations of nearly 100 boys.
In 1962, Rotary brought literacy and education to the forefront of club service activities once again, and clubs submitted information on initiatives they had undertaken in support of literacy and education. . In El Salvador, the Rotary Club of Santa Ana established a school to improve literacy in the region; in the United States, four area schools received books, paper, chalkboards, pencils and other teaching materials from the Rotary Club of Indianapolis, Indiana. The Rotary Club of Anand, India, reported an ongoing program of supplying teaching materials to schools.
Starting in 1965, matching grants provided financial support for clubs and districts, making it possible for them to undertake larger-scale projects. One early grant awarded under this program had a unique educational focus. Sponsored by the Rotary Club of Jerusalem, Jordan, this project provided materials in Braille for blind persons using the Arabic language.
From the April 1979 Rotarian Magazine. Literacy class for girls in Africa sponsored by the World Bank.
A women traces letters on a slate. The Rotaract Club of Sullurpet, India, developed an adult literacy program to teach 40 people in that community to read and write. Appeared in “The Rotarian,” April 2002, page 22. 2000-2001 Photo Contest, Rotary Programs, 1st place, Photographer: Sunkara Harish.
A student reads The Rotarian magazine in a high school library in Peoria, Illinois, USA. 1944 ©RI.
Throughout the 1970s, education and literacy continued to be a popular area of focus for Rotary clubs. Taking note of the rising number of literacy and education based service projects conducted by Rotary clubs worldwide, The Rotarian dedicated much of its April 1979 issue to these efforts. One of the projects profiled was in Venezuela, where the Rotary Club of Chachao funded and built the Paul Harris Library, which provided local citizens with books as well as classes in art and literature.
Looking towards our future
Rotary’s strong support for literacy and education based initiatives has extended into the 21st century. When we launched our new grants program in 2013, education and literacy was identified as one of the areas where we would focus our support. Today, foundation funded projects meet new criteria, engaging and involving the local community and focusing on creating a sustainable impact. In 2014-15, The Rotary Foundation awarded 133 grants in the area of education and literacy, totaling $8 million!
This year the foundation is celebrating the centennial, 100 years of Rotary members changing lives and improving communities all over the world. Members have supported thousands of projects to improve basic education and literacy. As we celebrate decades of commitment to support this basic human right, we look towards the future and focus on how we can address current challenges and look for innovative solutions to further boost literacy.
Add your club basic education and literacy projects to Rotary Showcase and share them on social media using the hashtag #LiteracyDay. Celebrate the Rotary Foundation centennial by doing 100 acts of good throughout the year. Let others know by sharing photo, along with a brief description of the act, on social media using #100actsofgood hashtag.
 AC0015, Box 17, Folder 23. “National Campaign Against Adult Illiteracy in the United States,” 1930
 The Rotarian, March 1934, p. 42
 The Rotarian, March 1934, p. 42
 The Rotarian, November 1937, p. 47
 The Rotarian, August 1930, p. 39
 AC0043. Board Minutes, January 1962, Decision 124
 AC0092, Series 5, Box 11, Folder 7, RI News, October 1962, p. 1.
 AC0037, Series 2, Box 1, Folder 3, “The Rotary Foundation Bulletin,” January 1966
 RI and TRF Annual Report, 2014-15, p. iii