Hema Yajaman, Volunteer and Sponsor in Bangalore, India
“But then I think that if we all did our bit, an ocean is just a large body of water made up of tiny drops of water. We can be the ocean these children sail on in their ‘happy memories of school’ boat to a safer shore, to a better place, to a better life.”
The children’s lives
When the teachers explained to me the children don’t like or want school holidays, I knew I was dealing with a very difficult truth here. Their lives in the Slums of Bangalore can get so incredibly hard and harsh that they are actually amazingly happy being in class. Edelweiss is more than just a ‘school’ to these children; it is their ‘sanctuary’.
It is an escape away from the pain of their poverty.
I think when their parents have an asbestos roof over their heads that could fly off in the wind, no stable income, scarcity of clean water and healthy food, an insanely small living space shared by rats and mosquitoes and every day is just a struggle to survive, these parents need to be forgiven if they may sometimes not have the time or energy to laugh or play with their kids enough. At Edelweiss the teachers become angels of light giving the children lots of laughter, play time, patience, empathy and an education every second of their time there.
My life as a volunteer and sponsor
I lived, studied and worked in Bahrain for 30 years and for the next 12,I enjoyed a successful career in Training Consultancy on Customer Service, Voice Conversions/Accents, Accounting and Auditing for British Projects in the contact centre industry. I felt I needed to give back to the country of my roots – India. I also need to be here for my Mum as we nurse Dad after a serious leg injury. Watching my parents grow old is stressful and they need my help. In early 2013 I had a cancer scare. Luckily it was a false alarm and I am just fine! A 10 year beautiful relationship with my British partner tragically ended which left me single and alone at 42. Let’s just say Bangalore isn’t a very ‘single friendly’ place for forty year olds (Giggles). Almost all my friends at my age here are married with kids. I feel it is hard to find common fun activities to socialise with them because I don’t have a family of my own.
The children help me heal from my emotional challenges in ways I never thought could be possible.
I see unconditional happiness on their faces when I visit them. They look at me like a friend who is crazy happy to see them each time. Something wonderful happens when they see me and that is they just accept me as I am! Honestly, the Children make me feel whole again.
Our lives at Edelweiss
I support the shared vision of AlphaBet Club and their partner Building Blocks India to keep these children off the streets and in school. Troy Swanson and James Ambat are two men I am greatly inspired by. I am in awe of how they have changed these children’s lives. To know a humble start of helping just 7 children has transformed into 750 children in 7 different schools makes me realise that dreams can come true if we work together.
I live just 10 minutes away from Edelweiss so I have no excuse. I make my visits happen. I also sponsor a child for Rupees 2500 every month, about 35 Euros each month. That is the money I would spend in just one night at a party here with my entry charge, drinks and taxi rides. I rather spend it on my little child. When I visit I bring my heart of hope for them and their favourite candy.
We have a magical time. This is what I see.
I see happy children working very hard at their lessons and having fun at the same time in brightly coloured class rooms with educational posters of every kind on the wall. Teachers work wonders with them in English because at just 3 years they know their Numbers from 1 to 100, their ABCs, days of the week, colours of the rainbow, months of the year, nursery rhymes and so much more.
I see children enjoying a high fibre healthy breakfast and lunch only after they have finished a 7 step cleaning process to wash both their hands. Sometimes I get my lunchbox along and have lunch with my little Darlings. I always admire their beautifully styled uniforms with the little check designs and matching check zipped shoes. I sing nursery rhymes and play their favourite games with them. I am planning my own little muppet show next with Macy an American blonde cowgirl muppet from New York’s Macy’s, the Department Store. She is named after the store and is the star of my show. Macy has trouble remembering her numbers from 1 to 20 no matter how hard she tries, so I was hoping the Edelweiss kids could help her out. I hold them, cuddle them, kiss them and tell them I love them. Things money can’t buy are just as special.
The schools are built near the Slums so it is wonderful to see the parents walk their little ones to school every morning. There is no need for an army of school buses. I was thrilled to know too that if parents are unable to collect their child because they are working, Edelweiss has travel arrangements to drop the child safely home. Social workers, project managers and teachers work harmoniously to ensure the safety of the children and their needs are met. I was happy to learn that Educational Visits to Museums, Planetariums, Zoos and other exciting places also happen. I felt a sense of calm knowing that the children have tutors to help them with their lessons after school so their grades never have to suffer and they are able to do well in school.
I remember sitting in class and meeting Akash for the very first time. He seemed to be talking to himself softly while he kept turning a white handkerchief in his little hands. His class mates were silently concentrating on what their teacher was writing on the class board. I wasn’t quite sure if Akash was taking this lesson in as he was continuously speaking to himself. Maybe he was speaking to an imaginary friend who kept distracting him, I thought. After class he sat next to me and was very interested in a big alphabet book I had brought along as a gift. He turned each page and was able to read large words on his own like ‘O’ for Octopus! I was amazed! I asked his teacher if he could have the book to take home as he was so fascinated with it. I also asked his teacher about Akash’s learning difficulties. His teacher explained that he is mentally challenged but extremely gifted and is actually absorbing all his lessons but at a different pace and in a unique manner.Edelweiss’ Principal Mary worked very hard to find Akash a placement in a school for children with special needs. It is beautiful how every child’s story is listened to, analysed and a collective decision that is best for the child is made between their parents, teachers and principals.
After the first 3 years of kindergarten, children are sponsored for the next 10 years and are able to attend International schools! These are schools that even middle class families I know in Bangalore find it hard to afford! I am so excited that these International schools have made this possible for underprivileged kids by creating a massive discount in their fee structuring just for our kids. This is truly a happy ending I can celebrate with my mind, my heart and my spirit.
Also an exciting new plan is being executed as I write this to build a boarding house so the older children can actually live here on school days. The idea was born because the International schools are at a terribly long distance away from the Slums and we are all too familiar with the maddening time killing traffic here. It is easier if the children are able to live nearer their school and be looked after by the Building Blocks support staff and visit home on the weekends and holidays. The possibilities are endless. It is a second home away from home. So much can be done in so many different ways.
As a volunteer and sponsor I try and reach out to my friends with social media and organise visits to Edelweiss. The objective is to create an awareness of the shared vision of AlphaBet Club‘s founder Troy Swanson and Building Blocks India‘s founder James Ambat , emotionally connect with the children, understand the school’s working model, brainstorm new ideas to make a difference, fund raise, and make possible contributions big or small all of which are equally valued, admired and respected. I then post the pictures I have taken on my Facebook wall. I have got a very emotional response so far from my Facebook friends who want to help in any way they can.
I love meeting James Ambat and Troy Swanson and his volunteers from Amsterdam, for some it is their maiden voyage to India. I try and help them in any way I can with seeing the sights, my favourite restaurants and shopping venues and just telling them everything I have learnt about India and its people since my return from foreign countries. I admire their calling to travel so far away from their homes and spend their airfares just to meet the children, learn of their charity’s new developments and be filled with hope. They take their heartfelt stories back home so the powerful chain reaction of their love and support inspires others to do what they have done. It moves me that they share my passion to help the children and makes my charity activities here so much more meaningful because I am not alone on this journey of giving. It is so comforting to meet like- minded global citizens like myself who want to be a part of these children’s lives. It inspires me to continue my efforts here in India while they do their charitable work in Amsterdam, Madrid and around the world. Together we are making a difference.
I also take part in special events. I was invited by Yogi Parmar a volunteer who inspired me to be one for their ‘make the change’ event at Bluebells school. We all had to help transform a once storage area into the children’s dining area. The school supplied us with cleaning materials and then it was just a matter of putting my gloves on and scrubbing everything in sight with a lot of love and elbow grease. I have seen children performing at the annual Children’s Day celebrations held on an International school campus in sparking costumes dancing with everything they had in them to entertain the audience. I was amazed by their talent at such a young age and thought their teachers must be miracle workers.
I sponsor this charity because I know every penny of my hard earned saved up money is going to the children. The financial transparency is critical for me. The highest emotional return is these children get to go to school, something you and me took for granted growing up. I make quarterly cheque payments at Rs 2500 per month and I get a receipt couriered to my address. I encourage my friends here to think about collective sponsorships where you can share paying the monthly fee with a friend or a family member if that works better for you.
Also when I leave Edelweiss each time after a visit, I take with me a bright memory that can lighten up even my darkest day. I remember little Dheeraj saying to his friends,” I want to sit right next to Hema,” and he puts his head on my shoulder holding me tight. His friends say,” Well you can sit with Hema now only if we can sit with her later.” And I just feel so needed and wanted.
They matter. I matter. We matter
I find it hard to hold back my tears sometimes because I know how hard life is at these Slums they call their Home. In such extreme adversities these children forget their suffering and show me the brightest side of their being. They radiate a bright light from their eyes that even in my world of plenty, I sometimes lose sight off. That is the miracle I marvel at each time I am there.I am not sure I could be as brave as them. That is why I am in awe of their resilience, fortitude, and undaunted determination to do well in school. They have the passion, the fire, the drive. They want to SUCCEED.
Their parents do not take this charity school for granted. They are very grateful and put in all the emotional energy they have got to support their child.We need to help these children escape their poverty and never return to it. I don’t want these children being frightened of their future. The Education we give them can take them to a new world.
Sometimes I think I am just a drop in the ocean with what I am doing. But then I think that if we all did our bit, an ocean is just a large body of water made up of tiny drops of water. We can be the ocean these children sail on in their ‘happy memories of school’ boat to a safer shore, to a better place, to a better life.
We can be the waves of change that carry them there.
Please make the decision to donate, volunteer your time and visit the children. They need us.