Border of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, to be honest.
I was told I was to accompany the journalism institute students on a trip to a village nearly two hours away by car, and that at that village there would be a school for India’s poorest children – children of street sweepers and latrine cleaners, of beggars and farmers.
So, I dutifully loaded the students onto two buses my second weekend in India and reported to the jeep that would carry me, an administrative volunteer and the head office administrator to an area on the border of Karnataka state and Tamil Nadu state in southeast India.
I hate to say it, but all the while at the back of my mind on this Saturday morning was the thought of having to forego being on Martha’s Vineyard to take up my stint as visiting professor at the institute. I just couldn’t shake the envy and jealousy; I was here in India and my family and friends were probably having fried clams at Nancy’s.
Then I met Shilpa.
This young woman, once a student at Shanti Bhavan School, is – like the school itself – amazing. I have met many, many people in my travels, but I have rarely met a young person with such wisdom, determination and grace. And I have rarely been to a non-profit project that has moved and impressed me as much as Shanti Bhavan.
“Shanti Bhavan is not an education program. It is a poverty alleviation program,” the son of the founder corrected one journalism student who had stepped up to ask a question. The school recruits 3 ½- to -4-year-olds from rural villages. They leave their families and join the free, residential school until they graduate.
The idea of snatching small children from their families seems unconscionable at first. The children and their family members are considered “untouchables,” a group so low in society that they are not even considered part of the centuries old Indian caste system.
The students’ families have, in most cases, been in poverty for 100s of years. They, like their family members before them are born a Dalit, as they are more commonly referred to today. It is a status they will always carry. And they are poor, with most having no access to clean water or sanitation and living in rural slums with no electricity or sufficient shelter. (You cannot imagine the type of poverty I am talking about.)
To be an “untouchable” (or “manual scavenger,” as they are also known) is just what you might imagine it would mean – but worst. Untouchables are considered so beneath others that you don’t touch them or anything they touch, or anyone who has touched something that they have touched. They cannot wear their shoes in the presence of those higher than them – and everyone is higher than them. They cannot look at me; their shadow can’t fall on me.
The George Foundation and its founder, Abraham George, want to rebuff the idea that those from a lower caste cannot, will not amount to anything. They want to break the cycle of poverty and believe that by taking one child from each Dalit family and providing them with an education, exposing them to the arts and placing them in a nurturing environment they will be able to lift their families out of poverty.
And, based on the testimony of the small group of alumni, it works. The children graduate and attend college, which is also supported by The George Foundation. They land at local, regional or multinational companies, making more money in five years than their parents will make in a lifetime. What remains to be seen is how the graduates will give back to their communities.
Shilpa was among the second class of 3 ½-to-4/year-olds to attend the school when it opened in 1997, and her love for Shanti Bhavan is contagious - and unequivocal. “Shanti Bhavan runs in my blood,” she said, “there is no place else I’d rather be.”
I am amazed at how anyone could look at her, and the other children for that matter, and see someone “untouchable.” Her journey, and the journey of most of the others, is remarkable. They come from incest and abuse, harsh labour and exploitation. They return to their villages as different people, which undoubtedly puts a significant strain on their relationship with siblings and parents, but it is also a teaching moment and a chance at inspiration.
In the moment that Shilpa told me, as we stood just inside the gates of the school’s compound saying goodbye, that her life is Shanti Bhavan, and that she feels a special reason for my being at the school on that cool Saturday, I also realized that I was there at that time and in that place to see the power and the grace of God. It felt like God brought me to Shanti Bhavan for one reason: To meet Shilpa. I was there to be reminded that NOTHING is impossible.
Education, the great equalizer.
The Vineyard could not even compete. With all its beauty and memories and familiarity, the beauty of Shanti Bhavan runs deep; its very existence is life-changing, not just for individuals, but for generations.
On the ride home (when I wasn’t flinching from the near-collision of cars and rickshaws), I couldn’t help but think that I may have just met India’s future prime minister or her next Nobel laureate, and all because one man had a dream – and followed it.
This, I am positive, is just the first of many lessons I will learn in India.
God is good, ain’t he?