Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Giving Gift of Education!

In our daily grind, we often forget to count our blessings, let alone think of those who are less fortunate.  Renu Bagaria, one day decided to do just that. One small step followed another, and today she runs Koseli School, a school dedicated to educating children living around slums of Kathmandu, particularly Shantinagar and Jadibuti slums. Didibahini talked to Renu about her journey in establishing Koseli School and her hopes and aspirations for children of Koseli School.

How it all started…
I realized what a difference simply giving an opportunity at education had made in his life.
There was a big city hospital in the area I grew up in India, and the pavements outside it were makeshift dwellings for poor in the area. Our house help then, lived there, and her daughter and I were of the same age. Everyday I used to feel that I should take her home, give her a bath and take her to school with me. When I got a little older, I went off to boarding school, and it fell by the sideways. Then, I got married and moved to Kathmandu. Poverty was even starker here. Around 15 years ago, I finally did something. With a few friends, we each put 5,000 rupees and put five kids from slums in school. Initially the 25,000 rupees collected then were enough for a full year of schooling, but to continue on, I had to dip into my own resources. Once one of students finished SLC, I realized what a difference simply giving an opportunity at education had made in his life. I had done nothing; he was living where he was living, doing what he was doing, except now he had gone to school regularly for about 10 years, and his life had completely changed. I then realized that this is what I want to do with my life. If I can do that with five kids, I can do it with 50, 100, 500 kids.

Evening class to day center…

These two little kids hadn't eaten anything because school was closed.
Initially, in 2007, I started with evening classes at another school premise. We would start at three, once the regular school was done for the day. We thought that way there is already an infrastructure, and we won’t have to worry about that.  But soon we realized children had nowhere to go during the day, so they were still begging in streets and gambling. The first year, there was an issue of trust. Most of the children who come to us are not orphans; they have somebody, parents or a relative. They would ask me what my motives were. My target in the beginning was to educate 10 kids. Every month I had 10 kids, but they would be different 10 kids. We used to give them snack, chiura, once they were in school. So, they would just come for the snack; they were not serious about learning. I saw two hours of studying and being in the premise was just not enough.
It was Sarswoti puja and the school was closed.  Yet kids were hanging around in school. I asked them why they were there. And  I realized these two little kids hadn’t eaten anything because school was closed.  That’s when I started a full day center with 22 kids four years ago. People then actually started believing that I don’t want anything in return. By the second or third month of starting the full day center, I had 65 kids.

Hygiene program…

But how do you educate a child who doesn’t have clothes to wear or food to eat, who has diseases?
With small numbers, I was able to manage. I had no degree, qualifications, or experience in education. I wanted to open a school, simply because I knew education is what makes a difference. But how do you educate a child who doesn't have clothes to wear or food to eat, who has diseases?

We started with snack twice a day because we couldn't afford a full meal. We gave them clothes and shoes, but they were still diseased. In slums there is a huge problem of hygiene. Kids had scabies and skin diseases.  So we started hygiene and bathing program at school. Everyday when they came to school they would take care of their hygiene. Next, we realized they had bad teeth. So they would come to school at eight a.m., brush their teeth, change their clothes, take a bath and wash their clothes. Once they have clothes, food, then comes education. As I always say, we trap them, essentially.

The growth…

At any given time we have over 100 children on waiting list
Today we have 120 kids; we are running at over capacity. At any given time we have over 100 children on waiting list. We have a very strict screening system. We check their background, their households, where they come from, who their families are because at free of cost, there are a lot of people who wants to send their kids to us. And if there is choice between a girl child and a boy child, we take the girl. Sometimes we also bargain, suppose they have three girls and a boy, we take in all three girls instead of a boy. The ratio of girl and boy is the same.

Planning each child’s future

Our goal is to equip them with skills that will help them make a living
No matter what rule you put in place, we have to take each kid on case-by-case basis. We prefer to take in children below 10, but we do make some exceptions. We have this child named Ishwor. He was a bonded laborer in Tatopani, working with horses for trekkers. He was rescued by a British lady and put in school in Pokhara, but he never stayed in school. Last year he came to us; he was 14 and half then. My thought is I don’t want to keep the children beyond 17. If they come to us at age 14-15, they are already behind in school. So what we do is, we consider what they are good at and start them on vocational trainings. Our goal is to equip them with skills that will help them make a living. By 17, I want them to be out and starting their lives. What we did with Ishwor was we started him on his basic education, Math, English and Social Education, and for the last six months, we have been working on his spoken English. Whenever we have foreign volunteers we have him communicate with them. We started him on French last month. So now my goal is that he goes back to Pokhara, Tatopani, but this time around he will be well equipped. And he is going to be trekking guide. I have already spoken to a trekking agency and when he is 17 he will be out there, by 18 he will get his trekking guide license. So we are planning each child’s individual career. Those who are good in academics will continue, but ones who are not, will go on to vocational trainings.

A day at Koseli…
Currently we have classes from nursery to grade seven. The day starts at 8 am. They come in the morning, brush their teeth, take a bath and change into their school uniforms and then they do their homework. After homework, it is morning assembly and lunch at 11 am. For a lot of them this is the only big meal of the day. At 12 pm they start on their lessons, which go on until 4:00 pm, or 4:30 pm for older kids.

Keeping them off the streets and out of trouble
It is amazing that they are just five or six years old, but they already have gangs and gang fights. And there is nothing cute about it. They would start fighting right outside the school gate, take out their playing cards and start gambling. So we had to do something about it. We extended the school hours and started creative activities like making paper bags, envelops. We didn’t have to tell them not fight or gamble; we just redirected their attention and kept them off the streets. We also run an open shelter system. Kids can live in school if they don’t have anywhere to go, but we don’t really run an orphanage. They can stay there temporarily until it is okay for them to go back. Winters and rainy seasons are when we have kids sleeping in school the most.


College students working to pay their tuition 
My teachers are also not from very well to do family. All of them are college students working to pay their tuition. That is why our classes start 12pm. These teachers finish their morning classes and then come work. Krishna Mani Baral, the school coordinator is also doing graduation in social work. He lives in school and takes care of total operation of school, while I am away.


I don’t know if I made the right decision or not, but I refuse to pay bribes  
Most of our funding comes from friends and well-wishers. We did a fund raising event some time ago along with Gurukul. Currently we are hand to mouth. We would have been fine if I stuck with 60 kids but I went to 120. So, everyday we have to make choices. I can’t say we are really out of our troubles. We won’t really be out of our troubles because I will always be adding more children in rotation. Sometimes, I do wish I had more stable form of funding. Because with family and well wishers, one may feel like donating one day and not another day.  I am sure we will eventually get a stable funding, because when people come to our school, they don’t feel like it is a school for slum kids. Koseli looks like your normal school and children are well fed and happy. And the school is clean, and that gives the impression that whatever money we get, goes into the program. The school’s kitchen is run in a very interesting way too. It is run by a group of ladies. They put in 1000 rupees each a month, pool together and buy ration for the month. So I don’t have to bother, I don’t have to go out and shop, it is all set.

Also, I am learning that there is a lot of corruption in this line of work when it comes to funding, which I didn't believe until it happened to me. I was trying to secure a fund through an organization, but the organization wanted two out of seven lakhs of endowment. We would end up with five lakhs, which is a decent amount of money for us, but I refused. I don’t know if I made the right decision or not, but I refuse to pay any kinds of bribes.

Every child has a story…

They had severe ulcer, but these girls never complained of any pain because they thought that is how life is like
We have posted stories of some of the children on our website, but it is amazing to see them transformed. For me, my success is success of each child that comes through our door. For example, there are three girls who came to Koseli last year. The youngest was just two then, but she used to come to us because the mom was working in construction and she had nowhere to leave her. They were happy, playful girls, skipping and playing around.  We noticed all these girls were bleeding. They were too young to get periods, so we took them to a doctor’s. They were suffering from ulcer. They had severe ulcer, but these girls never complained of any pain because they thought that is how life is like…it was their norm, they didn’t know any different. With treatments, they recovered quickly.  Pains and aches, they think it is part of life.

How can you help…

I want to give these children a wholesome childhood, show them what a normal childhood looks like.
Spread the word. Volunteers, money, time, any resources are welcome. And if people are skilled at certain things, they can come and teach the children. People can make donations on our website http://nepalkoseli.blogspot.com. Whoever, in whatever capacity would like to contribute, we welcome them. I want to give these children a wholesome childhood, show them what a normal childhood looks like. Last year we had a sports day. A lot of people said, “why do your kids need sports day; they don’t have food to eat and you are talking about sports day?” To them I say, “Come on give them a break, they deserve it.”

Original Interview at: http://www.didibahini.com/2013/03/17/giving-gift-of-education/ 
Credit: www.didibahini.com