February 25, 2013
Field Report - Faridabad, India
Martin Malley, OE Asia Managing Consultant, February 19, 2013
Occasionally we have the good fortune to meet extraordinary humanitarian leaders. People with tremendous courage and tenacity who work in the face of what for most of us would be overwhelming adversity. Two who leap to mind from my travels in recent years include Sunitha Krishnan, founder of Prajwala in Hyderabad, and Rev. Dr. Fredrick Shoo, Assistant Bishop of the ELCT Northern Diocese in Tanzania, who guided a few of us as we visited the remote Rukwa region in 2011.
Yesterday I was blessed to meet another one. Renu Bali is the Founder and Director of Tender Heart NGO in Haryana, south of Delhi. I visited the school as part of my work in support of Opportunity Education.
Except for the seriousness and compassion of what I was seeing, I was reminded of an infomercial - where just when you think it is over, it announces "Wait, there's more!".
I will never tire of visiting the primary school classrooms, seeing the energy of the little kids and excitement they radiate when sharing their studies with me. Tender Heart School was no exception, and I thought that would be the main event of our visit. But then I got to know Renu. She started the school over 15 years ago, on a piece of vacant land in rural India adjacent to a village that lacked any school. The school was not welcomed. Parents saw no value in having their kids (especially daughters) spend time in a classroom rather than working on the family land. Renu stood firm in the face of very real threats and started teaching kids. Now the school is an important part of life in what is still a very poor community.
The first "wait - there's more" was the special needs unit. In these classrooms I met many children with a variety of physical handicaps and learning disabilities. Many had experienced lives that were fundamentally imprisonment before the Renu took them in. The hands-on learning aids that Opportunity Education provides to the "regular" school have proved very beneficial in this unit. Many kids who would have had no real future have become productive and proud young women and men as a result of the work here.
But wait - as the kids grew, Renu came to realize that she needed to find ways to give them jobs. We saw a variety of projects that these young people are working on. All have been carefully selected to ensure the kids can work without being exposed to hazards and can be done with very low cost materials. One of the most interesting was the school chalk manufacturing operation being conducted by some learning disabled teen boys. They manufacture chalk using a manual press, dry and package it, and sell to schools in the vicinity. There was a lot of pride in these guys.
But wait - Renu saw the struggles of the illiterate young women of the village, many of whom were married at a very young age. She created a women's opportunity project, bringing the young girls together, teaching them basic job skills. They are now manufacturing a variety of fabric products (handbags, laptop cases, wallets, scarves, folders) and jewelry. All are paid a fair wage and they set their own prices for the products. Renu insists that when the girls get their first pay, they use it to buy things for themselves, not turn it over to their husbands. This has done a tremendous amount to instill pride in the young women as they come to work well-dressed for the first time in their lives. Renu is very anxious to find new markets for the products - if you know anyone who can help develop a sales channel please let me know.
But wait - there are many children, especially those of itinerant workers, who cannot afford even the meager fees to attend school, or buy a uniform, or perhaps their parents simply don't see the need. Renu and her teachers opened an "after school school" that meets in the afternoon when the regular students have gone home. Any child who shows up is given basic education in math and reading. Renu told a story about what became a major selling point in the itinerant laborer community. These laborers are paid periodically based on number of days worked. It is common for paymasters to cheat them by paying for fewer days than they actually work. For laborers who do not know how to count, it is an easy scam. The teachers encouraged the children, who had learned to count and solve math problems, to help their fathers calculate the payment due. The value of education was made very clear. It was amazing to see how many kids showed up voluntarily for these classes, and to see how enthusiastically they were learning.
I'm sure there will be "more". While sitting in my hotel room typing this a young man came to my door to deliver a parcel from Renu. It is sample merchandise that she wants me to show to people who might be in a position to place streams of orders to keep the young women and disabled teens working.