(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 7, 2009)
Great ideas can come at the most unexpected times. John Breen, founder of FreeRice.com, was in the kitchen with his two teenage sons when inspiration hit. The Indiana-based computer programmer was trying to help his older child prepare for the SAT.
"The younger one made a mockery of the situation," Breen explained in a December 2007 interview with National Public Radio. "He kept saying, 'He doesn't know this word, he doesn't know that word.' So I decided to do something on the computer to help my son learn vocabulary words."
The computer program he developed was a multiple-choice vocabulary game. It wasn't long before Breen realized that his online learning tool had broader applications. Breen, who had previously created the Web site Poverty.com to help educate people about world hunger, launched FreeRice.com on Oct. 7, 2007. In the game he designed, players earn grains of rice, instead of points, for choosing the correct answer. Sponsors, whose banner ads run at the bottom of the page, transform the virtual grains players win into actual food. The United Nations World Food Programme then distributes the grain to needy people around the world. By the end of last month, more than 67 billion grains of rice had been donated through Breen's Web site. That was enough rice to provide a day's worth of food for 3.5 million people.
Although FreeRice.com has been around for about two years, it was a discovery for me. My friend Sharon touted its merits in a Facebook discussion, and her comment generated more than enough positive feedback to pique my curiosity. I went to FreeRice.com and after surveying it briefly, began playing the vocabulary game.
Although English Vocabulary was the only game originally offered, the site now challenges players in 12 other subjects, including Famous Paintings, World Capitals, Chemical Symbols, Basic Math, Spanish and three other foreign languages. In English Vocabulary, I had to pick the correct synonym out of four choices to match the given word.
Each time I answered correctly, I earned 10 grains of rice. Instead of being penalized when I answered incorrectly, I was given the correct definition to study and review. The program tracked my mistakes and repeated words I didn't know until I learned them. A "warning" on the site's home page said it all: "This game may make you smarter. It may improve your speaking, writing, thinking, grades, job performance ..."
After playing about a half-hour and racking up enough rice to provide a day's worth of food for one person, I felt pretty darn good. I was having fun, helping others and learning words at the same time. I wanted to share my discovery with my husband.
"Ralph," I called into the kitchen where he was reading the paper. "Come here a sec. I want to show you something."
Ralph walked into my office hesitantly. He probably thought I needed his help with some sort of problem. He was surprised to see me playing a game.
"I want to show you this cool site I discovered," I said. "You play a game and win rice to feed hungry people."
"What's the catch?" he asked as he sat down in front of the keyboard.
"There is no catch," I replied. "One hundred percent of all money raised by the site goes to the World Food Programme. Come on. Give it a try."
He continued with the game I was playing and was captivated immediately, probably because he didn't get a single word wrong. Although the difficulty level kept increasing, he answered word after word correctly. Instead of accumulating 500 grains of rice in the virtual bowl, my sweet and mentally sharp husband increased our combined tally to more than 1,000.
At my urging (I was growing weary of seeing him get every answer right), he moved on to another subject, French. It has been more than 40 years since Ralph sat in a French class, but once again, he aced the quiz.
We were well above 2,000 points when we decided to call it a night. In less than an hour, our mutual effort had yielded enough rice to feed four people for a day. In the grand scheme it's not much, but to those four people it means one less day feeling hunger pangs.
I was amazed by the FreeRice site. In a society that attaches a price tag to almost every commodity, we don't expect compassion to reign supreme. But compassion is Breen's stock and trade. His eureka moment resulted in a new way to do business — play a game, increase your knowledge and help others at the same time. Breen has proved that even small steps — a few grains of rice at a time — can make a big difference. The world is a little better because of one man's efforts.