Saturday, February 12, 2011



A few months ago, I read this Whole Living Magazine blog post about a non-profit organization called Vidyanikethan in Bangalore, Karnataka that worked on many projects in the poor communities in and around the city, focusing primarily on supporting children from destitute situations (ex-child labourers, children of sex workers, children outside of the proximity of government-funded schools, etc.).  One of our main reasons for volunteering was to feel more grounded in a country where, for numerous stretching-outside-of-our-comfort-zone reasons (as detailed earlier our first post about India) we were both quite nervous about visiting.  Of course, we are both firm believers in “doing good” – it drives who we are – but we also wanted a place to call home in India, complete with a family and a raison d’etre, so we could wake up every morning in this strange new world with a purpose.  We soon found out that we needed something exactly like Vidyanikethan, and happily, they needed us too.  

My search for Vidyanikethan began by connecting with several people who eventually led me to one of Vidyanikethan’s board members – Anand – who is one of a special breed of entrepreneur, the Bangalore entrepreneur.  Bangalore is a boom town, in the new concept of the term in that they have recently discovered gold in the international need for cheap IT help.  If you have troubles with your Verizon Wireless service, the 800 number you are calling will most likely be forwarded to a Bangalore native whose work hours are 10pm-7am to align with the North American’s working hours.  The pay rate in Bangalore is remarkably lower than that in North America, thus there being a real market for entrepreneurs to run supporting businesses around the town – driving services, project managers, international/ go-betweens, etc.  Anand, in addition to a good head and business model, has a good heart.  His connection with Vidyanikethan is purely selfless, and for that, he was a great connection to make in our venture into the Indian world.  

The three of us met for tea at a local hang out (I told him he’d be able to find us because we’d be the “white faces in the crowd,” sure enough, we stuck out like two pale thumbs).  We instantly warmed to him as we learned about his connection to the organization.  They help women and children in need, and he believes in what they do, therefore he’s offered to help them gather volunteers who also believe in what they do.  Point blank.  We were sold – and we were scheduled to arrive for a full day of tours around the area to see their projects the next day.  Our meeting was brief, as Anand was in between meetings with a Swedish film school delegation (part of a new film school he’s helping start in Bangalore), but he sent us off with a wish to enjoy our time with Vidyanikethan, a hand-drawn map to where the school was located, and some great restaurant recommendations for the area.

That evening and during hour-long commute the next morning, Steve and I chatted about what we’d gotten ourselves into, not necessarily committing to jumping ship if the feeling wasn’t right, but permitting ourselves to critically look at the organization’s motives and our services for them.  The bottom line is we were nervous and playing it safe.  That feeling couldn’t have melted away faster the moment we arrived at the school.

Time is a relative thing in India.  Suggesting the cab come to pick us up at 9:30 doesn’t mean a thing – if the cab arrives ½ hour early, we should take it, and if it’s an hour late, we shouldn’t bat an eye – and then, we should take it.  Our cab arrived at the school 45 minutes later than Steve and I said we’d be there (sacrilege in our OCD world) but we got the sense that the school and organization administrators were waiting at the school entrance from early that morning for our arrival.  Upon walking into the school, close to 15 stunning women in saris, shuffled about us, hanging malas (garlands) around our necks, serving us masala chai, offering blessings, and making us feel like members of the royal family come to pay a visit.  Our hands were grasped, signs had been hung, and a meeting commenced in our honour when silence filled the main office and all 15 pairs of eyes looked at us expectantly.  I stumbled a bit and offered our gratitude for the amazing welcome, casually mentioning that we’d be more than happy to help in any way over the week.  The head of the entire entourage, a woman who started the school in the late 1980s, spoke up then welcoming us in sparse English.  A colleague of hers quickly took over the conversation and guided us through a brief, yet detailed account of several organizational projects.  To our surprise, they’d read our résumés closely and had expected and planned for Steve to help them with their grant applications and for me to offer workshops to not only all of the teachers in the school, but also throughout the week, to teach a class to every grade (the school runs from Kindergarten to Grade 7 – approximately 220 students).  But before any of that happened, they’d planned the day for us to take the school vehicle around to the various projects in (and far away from) the area.  Though, we had no other plans ourselves, we were assured we’d return to the school around 4:00ish (but remember, time is relative in India, so we walked in our door closer to 9:00pm that evening).

The ride(s) were amazing and we feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to not only visit the field projects, but to experience the countryside and alternative-to-city-living of the two states, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. For the first hour+, we trekked over unpaved terrain to get to the first project, through sericulture (silk-producing) villages where cows, goats, and barefoot children roamed in the streets, gawking at the white people in the car.  The landscape was dry and very beautiful, occasionally dotted with trees, but for the most part, barren and stretching far into the distance.  The people we drove by were beautiful, the women in their vibrant saris of every colour, balancing large baskets of vegetables, sticks, etc. on their heads, and the men wandered arm-in-arm (a phenomenon we’ve found very fascinating here in India) through the streets.  
The first project we saw was the one that quickly became our focus for grant applications and funding opportunities, but also the most dear to our hearts.  In the village of Sarjapur, we visited a two-room building that was home to 16 girls who were ex-child labourers, rescued 4 years prior by a UNICEF and Department of Sericulture initiative to abolish child labour in the silk industry.  Vidyanikethan had committed to housing and providing for these girls, but after the Department of Sericulture declared there to be no more children in the work force, the funding was cut.  We’d learned that many of these girls’ families were untraceable, thus making them orphans in Vidyanikethan’s care.  
We nervously arrived to the project at the tail end of the children’s lunch hour, preparing ourselves to find a group of children who carried the weight of the harsh world, but rather we were greeted with smiles (several missing age-appropriate teeth), a playful run around the lawn, and a sense of pride in their simple home that melted our hearts.  We thanked them for sharing their home with us, handed out shiny stickers (you can imagine the response to those), and sensed the urgency for our help in finding funding for these girls, in the form of either large or simple seed grants, as well as corporate and individual funding.  During the week, Steve and I later wrote requests for help to provide these girls with the basic needs:

“Through Vidyanikethan’s support, the sixteen rescued girls from the Sanjapur area have continued to live in the government-provided hostel, but with only the bare necessities.  The building where the girls live consists of two bare rooms which are used for all of the girls’ daily activities: sleeping, eating, playing, and more.  The girls, ages 6-16, are a playful, energetic, and hopeful group who, despite their dire situation, support each other as a family.  It is Vidyanikethan’s wish to enrich their lives by implementing existing plans to harvest rain water, grow a kitchen garden, paint the living quarters, and bring in extra-curricular teachers, but none of this can move forward without your help.”

More on this later.

Crossing into the state of Tamil Nadu, our next stop (a one hour drive away) was the Margasusi project, another hostel/home to 55+ boys and girls who were children of sex workers.  We were greeted with a ceremonial burning of spices, recitation of prayers, and more deliciously-smelling garlands.  Though we did have the chance to return to the home later to meet the children, we arrived when the children were at school and were given a delicious southern Indian lunch typically eaten with your hands consisting of rice, curry, yogurt, and cabbage…and tea, of course.  During this time and the walk around the facilities, we learned about the programs in place to help the children and prevent them following into the sex trade.  Not only are the children helped here, but counselling and vocational referral services are provided to the mothers. We learned about the school programs, dance classes, the working garden, the rainwater-collecting system, saw the rooms painted voluntarily by Disney India, and the other stable-life-building provisions for these students.  Though there is a constant need for funding to run programs such as these, we could clearly see the difference between this project and the first we visited.  Compared to the ex-child labourers, these children of sex workers lived with so much more. 

Unfortunately, we do have a video of yours truly dancing (trying to dance) with the kiddos at the home, but due to a slow internet connection and some trick no uploading rules, that video will have to wait until we get a faster connection.

To save time and blog space, I won’t go into the third project we visited, but again, we were welcomed with open arms and eager tales about the education-, health-, and environment-based work Vidyanikethan is providing in 30 villages in the area.  You can see from the family photo the pride the staff felt and were thrilled to share with us.

The day was incredible and when we silently fell into bed that evening (silent, as both of our heads were spinning with emotions, tales, thoughts, and inexplicable feelings from the day), we slept soundly having been engaged on a helpful mission.  What a special opportunity we had to not only experience life in rural India, but also to be a part of this growing organization that has done so much to help the community.  
Over the course of the week, we spent hours and days both at the school and at home (where the power didn’t cut out so much so we were able to get internet work done).  Steve spent endless hours meeting with the staff members of the organization talking, planning, and ultimately writing and re-writing grant applications, application templates, corporate, and individual asks for mainly the Sarjapur (ex-child labourers) project as well as an organization-wide request for money toward a school bus for the Bangalore school.  

I spent one day helping to brainstorm the funding requests, and the rest of the time lesson planning, observing, offering an impromptu workshop for the teachers about the use of creativity and the arts in the classroom as an enrichment to the book and test-based learning the kids were doing, and – the best part – doing my thing and teaching the kiddos (ages 3-13) various team-building activities, problem-solving techniques, creative play activities, and how to peacefully look for tigers.  Despite the language barrier and (some) stoic teachers, I had a ball playing with all of the children, surprising them by getting right down on their level and engaging in activities with them, and generally being embraced by the school community.  Some memorable moments include when one girl pointed at my freckly arms and asked “Pimples, m’am?”  Another boy, in broken English, glanced up at me with doe eyes and said, “Come back soon, m’am.”  “I’ll try,” I responded.  “Oh good,” he said, “Maybe March?”

One evening, after school hours, we were welcomed into the home of one of the senior teacher’s family for tea and southern Indian delicacies – she is a fireball of a woman who, after raising her family, returned to school at the age of 48 for her Bachelors of Education and Montessori training, and at the age of 68, volunteers her mornings to leading morning assemblies, teaching the children Hindu prayers, and overseeing the Lower and Upper Kindergarten cuurriculum.  She doesn’t show any sign of slowing down any time soon, and having now made this connection, I can say I’ve found both an inspirational educational mentor and a new friend.  

Below are some photos from our week with the children.

If you’ve come this far in the blog, I commend you for your effort and thank you for sticking with it.  As you can read, this past week has had quite the effect on us, and couldn’t possibly be captured in a brief account.  We’re still processing and will probably spend the rest of the trip and even time after our return home to Vancouver marvelling at our week with Vidyanikethan.  We’re happy to share that many email addresses have been exchanged and we both plan to continue volunteering for the organization for a long time.  Once you find something you believe in, even if it’s on the other side of the world, it’s important to do what you can to maintain that connection and support.  

In this spirit, we’ve decided to help sponsor a couple of the children of Sarjapur who are in dire need.  Having met these girls and seen their home, we feel a strong connection to them and are eager to share their story.  If you are interested in joining us in sponsoring the program, the details for giving are below.  The US dollar and other western currencies go very far in India, so every little bit helps.  
Step 1.) To give an online donation click here: Vidyanikethan  
Step 2.) Scroll to the bottom of the list and look for VIDYANIKETHAN
Step 3.) Select the amount you would like to donate and add it to your shopping cart.  (Note: The amount on the website is in rupees. $1.00 = approx. 40 rupees)
Step 4.) Click on the shopping cart in the top left corner of the page.
Step 5.) Go through the credit card payment process.
***Step 6.) Once you have completed the payment process, please write an email to Vidyanikethan detailing the following so that the money goes to the ex-child labourer girls in Sarjapur:

Dear Vidyanikethan staff,
I recently made a donation on the CAF India website in the amount of _________ rupees.  Please put this money toward the program that helps the ex-child labour girls in Sarjapur.
Thank you,
(Your name) 
Thanks, readers.  More updates coming soon from the subcontinent. 


  1. Beautiful. (Really, what else can I say?)

  2. How lucky you are to have experienced this week. And how lucky the children are to have met you.

  3. This is truly inspiring guys! Just fantastic!

  4. Amazing week. We are so very proud of you two!

  5. Hello Steve!

    Just wanted to say thanks again for submitting this article to the 6th Byteful Travel Blog Carnival. (I just wish the text color of the article was white, because I find it difficult to read black text over brown.) I liked the photos though!

    Oh and be sure to spread the word about the blog carnival in any way that appeals to you (retweeting is one of the easiest ways). And I hope to see your submissions again next time!