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Phoebe brings Libraries to Nepal

Phoebe reading to Nepalese children
Phoebe reading aloud in '07

When Phoebe moved back home to America after spending most of her early childhood in Nepal, she was shocked by what her Nepalese friends were missing out on.

“Coming from one of the poorest areas in the world to one of the richest was definitely a shock,” she recalls, and admits she was definitely behind in English. “I remember coming back from the first day of school thinking, ‘oh my god, they speak a different language!’”

“Stop saying ‘wouldn’t it be great if this happened’ and just go out and do it.”– Phoebe Coburn

Cultural differences aside, she quickly caught up and turned into an avid reader. At 11 years old, when she realized that many Nepalese schools didn’t even have books, she took the initiative to give the less fortunate children she’d grown up with in Nepal the stuff to dream with. “I wanted to bring America to Nepal—to give back to the people I’d been so close to.” Teaming up with her friend Leisl Clark, a documentary filmmaker, the first Magic Yeti Library began.

Magic Yeti Library's Yaks hauling books
Yaks hauling books to the rural libraries

While Leisl scouted locations in the foothills of Mt. Everest in Nepal, Phoebe organized fundraisers and ran book drives in her hometown of Jackson, Wyoming. Local libraries, elementary schools, and even thrift stores let her take books they no longer wanted, and soon Phoebe had over 1,500 pounds of books ready to ship to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal. From there the books were transported using the only method available for hauling cargo along the dirt trails of mountainous Nepal – on the backs of yaks.

Since that first library in 2007, Phoebe has organized four more throughout Nepal. “We’ve opened five but it’s more like four and a half,“ reveals Phoebe. “The fifth library hasn’t done very well, but we’re going back to fix it.” The problem? There’s no word for “library” in Nepalese, so the concept can be hard to explain.

A school in Nepal
In Nepal the literacy rate is only 50%

The Magic Yet Libraries serve hundreds of rural Nepalese kids, some who even walk five hours just to get to there. Phoebe notes their enthusiasm for reading is quite different than what’s normal in the States – they prefer non-fiction as opposed to fictional stories, because they want to learn about the world. “National Geographic magazines are by far the most popular,” explains Phoebe. Although books in the native Nepalese script Devanagari are also available, the kids enjoy reading English the most, since understanding the language will help them get jobs and travel. “They all have their own dreams," says Phoebe. "I think the library definitely opens their eyes to different possibilities in different places in the world.”

Phoebe Coburn and the Rotary Club
Phoebe and friends in a new library

As a senior in high school, Phoebe’s not ashamed to say that managing the Magic Yeti Libraries while getting ready for college has been hard, but she prefers being challenged to being bored. Amazingly, most of her friends don’t know about her experiences. “I don’t really talk about it that much, it’s just kind of something I did… I don’t care much about the publicity part of it.”

Phoebe's advice to anyone who wants to change the world is straightforward; “Stop saying ‘wouldn’t it be great if this happened’ and just go out and do it.”