Remembering Manu #GivingTuesday#India

manu3For the past 6 years, come January and my thoughts go to Manu who left us all lost and bewildered on a cold morning in January 2011. I must admit that on that fateful day my feet faltered and I was close to giving up. You see Manu had been the one who showed me the way and thawed my frozen heart. I had been rudderless after the death of my parents and it is Manu who gave me back not only the will to live but to do something to honour their memory.

How can you define the relationship between a ‘well-to-do’ well past middle age woman and a beggar. It would take volumes or just one simple word: love. Yes Manu redefined the word love and gave it a whole new meaning.

It was as if he had circled the same path over and over again for years, in extreme heat and bitter cold to ensure that when I passed by he would be there. And when we met if felt like we had both reached our final destination.

It was for Manu that Project WHY was set up in the quaint street where he had been born and where he ‘lived’. The broken, dishevelled, filthy soul riled by one and all waited patiently for that day in May 2000.

The rest is history. Project WHY was set up and Manu cared for.

For a decade our lives were entwined. Manu trusted me implicitly. He also taught me many lessons. Most of important of all that no life is useless. Had there been no Manu, there might have been no Project WHY.

The other lesson Many taught me was to never say die, no matter how bad things are, there is always light at the end of the road if you are willing to walk the one less travelled. In my toughest moments when everything seemed dark and the urge to throw my hands up was overwhelming, seeing him smile would lift the clouds and make the sun shine again.

He was a gentle soul with a quirky sense of humour. We shared many precious moments, dancing and laughing and many meals too! Spending time with him was a blessing, an intense feeling that all was well and one was safe.

I do not know what saints look like; I think Manu was one, a true child of God.

Project WHY has to continue to honour is memory.

Manu remains safe in my heart.

 

 

2016 revisited #GivingTuesday#India

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2016 has been the Year of Transformation for Project WHY!

It began quietly without fanfare and ended with a bang. The mood on day 1 of the year was bittersweet. Everything was on track and all centres were running like a clockwork orange. The children were happy and busy. New activities were numerous thanks to our volunteers and friends.  Exams were prepared and passed with success. Holidays saw the return of the dance teacher to the children’s delight and the centres throbbed with loud music and thumping feet. Festivals were celebrated, the perfect opportunity to showcase the newly learnt steps. All in all ‘all was well’ at Project WHY.

Few would have guessed how shaky things were backstage. The coffres were empty and it is only the kindness and generosity of friends and well wishers that made the ship sail. We all knew that it could not go on forever and that something needed to be done.

It is our dearest friend Kabir who lay the foundation of Project WHY’s transformation when he introduced our work to the Savitri Waney Foundation. The rest is history.

The Savitri Foundation bailed us out but that was not all. It decided to extend support provided we took the first steps to the much needed transformation. So it was time to pull the proverbial socks on and get to work. Policies were finalised, data put in order and new processes drafted. Everyone was and still is up on their toes! The much needed coat of paint was finally on.

Amongst the many changes:  Project WHY inducted some new board members and the help of a consultant who would assist in strengthening existing and building new resources. This is an going process.

Savitri extended one year support to our Okhla and Khader centres and this will allow us to have the time to broaden our donor base and thus move towards sustainability.

That was one side of the story.

The other one is in sync with the Project WHY spirit. In September we started a pilot project within our existing ressources. This little project reached out the very first children that Project Why had targeted way back in 1998: the beggar children. That programme had not worked out but almost 18 years later we were able to reach out the children of the beggars of Kalka temple with an afternoon programme. Life had come full circle.

About 30 school going (yes beggars do send their kids to school) learn every afternoon in the night shelter for women. Let us see how this enfolds.

As said earlier the year ended with a bang and it would have been a bad one if not for what I call Project WHY’s miracles. Two weeks before the year ended, the terrible news of the theft of our computers at the Okhla centre, it was a huge blow indeed but a simple message was all it took to get all the computers replaced! Wow.

So what is the message?

It is simple: no matter what, do not stop believing in miracles!

Happy New Year.

 

A Xmas miracle

 

Angels do not have wings! Sometimes they appear in the form of a spunky 8 year old.

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I was wondering what my Xmas message would be this year! How could I know that it would come to me in a sealed enveloppe.

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The enveloppe contained a card

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and a message!

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This was sent by my lovely grandson Agastya Noor for his friends in the Project WHY creche of which he is an alumni. The enveloppe also contained four 5 € bills, money he had got for Xmas. As his mom was coming to Delhi he decided to send it for his friends at Project WHY. he found card and enveloppe himself and wrote his message.

It was my Xmas miracle.

This tiny lad had proved that compassion knows no age and that seeing with your heart is a gift from God. Just like the Little Prince, Agastya learnt the secret of the Fox at a tender age.

But that is not quite the miracle I was referring to. For this this tiny enveloppe laced with so much love was the proof that my efforts to get children from all walks of life meet and learn from each other is no pipe dream but a reality that we must believe in.

At a time where Project WHY is seeking new forms of support, we have short listed ‘interaction with schools’ as one of our funding options. This is not so much for the coins and cheques that may come our way.

Education has to go beyond the confines of maths and english and other subjects, it has to break the bonds of marks and percentages. Education is about learning to live with others as expressed by Jacques Delors in his 4 Pillars of Education. In India, living with others entails first getting to know others by breaking invisible walls. Once they are broken then more miracles ensue. When Project WHY visited CSKM, it took no time for girls to bond and become friends. That one lived in a few square feet and the other in a big house did not matter. dscn3513

What mattered was sharing stories, exchanging numbers and holding hands. The question in everyone’s eyes was : when do we meet again!

That little enveloppe was the quiet reminder from a little Angel that Grandma was on the right path.

It is Xmas after all, Happy Holidays!

A blessed day #Giving Tuesday#India

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Tuesday, November 29th 2016 was a blessed day. One had waited long years for this moment. One of the most cherished vision of Project WHY has been to have children from both side of the spectrum meet and learn from each other as Project WHY believes that it is only then that India will awaken. Project WHY has always supported the idea of a state run, state-0f-the-art neighbourhood school where children from all walks of life learn and grow together as school need to be a level playing ground.

Alas it looks like one will have to wait a long time for this to happen. Hence the next best option: invite children from privileged schools to come and see Project WHY.

This had been long in the making but finally it happened thanks to the inimitable Shaku Ma’am, Principal of CSKM school, a school with a huge heart and the right values.

The need for children of all walks of life to meet and bond is an integral part of any sound education programme. Schools cannot be hermetic bubbles but have to be a level playing ground.

None of us knew how the day would unfold.

This was not your ‘normal’ outing to a museum or an amusement park, this was a raw reality check. How would kids normally ‘shielded’ from the other side of the fence, react to the surroundings and the children.

The Project WHY kids were told that the visiting children were their guests and they were free to interact with them in whatever way the wanted. They had prepared games and were all set to welcome their friends.

It would be quasi impossible for us to guess how the CSKM kids felt when their bus found its way to our Okhla centre and there were a few awkward moments as the children stood at the door and no one knew what to do. But that was short lived and in no time at all the children broke all barriers and it was bonding time. Questions were asked and answered, the bubble gun was soon in action and one heard peals of laughter. Older kids went to play cricket, others played games. Some of the senior CSKM kids were seen in deep conversation with their Project WHY peers, conversation we dared no intrude in. We know that plans were made to ‘meet again’!

It was soon time to move on to the Yamuna Centre where lunch was waiting. The CSKM children served the Yamuna children and vice versa. It was a beautiful moment that will remain engraved in our hearts forever.

The children roamed in the vegetable fields and the Yamuna kids were very proud to show there new friends their vegetable patches and explain cropping patterns.

It was soon time to leave. One could feel the emotions and the myriads of questions in the eyes of the CSKM kids, questions that would ignite compassion and much more. This was a real social studies class.

As they walked back to the bus, they spotted sugar cane growing in a tiny patch next to  a hut. They ran towards it. The lady who owned this patch came out and was seen cutting cane after cane and giving it to the children with a huge smile on her face. When we offered to pay she refused. You need not be rich to be generous, another lesson learnt.

Most of the children expressed their desire to do something for their new friends and next week, Project WHY children will go to visit CSKM and share lunch withe their new friends.

Seeds have been sown in young hearts.

It is now for us to water them and help them bloom.

 

Tell me a story #GivingTuesday#India

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For those born before the advent of TV, the lessons best learnt were from stories told to us by parents or grandparents or discovered in books found in every child’s room and  read with avid passion. The art of story telling is ancient and prevalent in all cultures. This art started dying slowly when ‘screens’ surreptitiously  pushed books away. For some of us who were bookworms then and still are now, books are as essential as food if not more and the stories heard eons ago still fresh in our minds.

Some of us at Project WHY had been thinking of including story telling in the curriculum but never quite did so. It was a mail with a link to a blog entitled: Telling Truth, Why we teach storytelling to fifth graders  and co-authored by Nina Sethi one of our dearest friends, that gave us the impetus to get going.

Nina and her colleague Gaby introduce us to their reinterpretation of story telling and what they share is amazing. They tell us how story telling has transformed their fifth graders. We have seen students grow closer to each other because they are impressed by classmates’ stories of risk-taking and reaching out. We have seen students grow closer to family members because they have had to think through their roles in those relationships.

We have always held that one of Project WHY’s main role is to give children a voice and what better way than story telling. And we will not limit it to one grade but extend it to both primary and secondary children. We hope it will help them bring out all those the things that have remained hidden and even festered; that it will bring them closer to their mates and teachers; that it will build their confidence and also improve their oral skills. A real win-win situation.

Just like for Nina and Gabby, we hope this will be great learning experience for all of us.

We have a voice; it is for us to use it and make it heard!

 

Everything is going to be all right. Miracles happen everyday. #GivingTuesday#India

compokhla4Everything is going to be all right. Miracles happen everyday wrote Adrienne Posey. I second that unequivocally! In the past 16 years of running Project WHY, I have seen them happen and lost count.

Another one was conjured in the past 48 hours.

I was woken up on Sunday morning by a phone call informing me of the theft of most of our computers, printers etc at the Okhla Centre. It came as a shock!

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After making sure that all were informed, I sat down quietly to try and find out what lesson was this theft teaching me. For more than 14 years Okhla has been safe and  protected by the community. Perhaps the lesson was that we had become too complacent. Who knows. But then why steal something that would hurt innocent children and their future. Somehow it did not seem right. I sat to meditate and was  guided to share the incident on a healing group I belong to.

A few minutes later I hear the whoosh of my phone indicating a new message. It simply says: how much is the loss? Someone had money and had been wondering where to donate it and not getting any guidance. The money was simply waiting for us.

The bottom line is that ALL that was lost will be replaced and the children would have lost a couple of days only.

If this is not a miracle, then what is!

And it does not end there; thanks to this incident more doors have opened for Project WHY, doors that we did not know how to ope not having the right ‘introduction’. Our thief gave it us. No wonder I am grateful to him.

God or the Universe works in ways that we often do not comprehend. If Utpal had not suffered terrible burns would he be in a boarding school today? The list of Project WHY miracles is endless.

Over the years I have moved from awe to gratitude and now to complete surrender.

The lessons to be learnt are that we need to keep on believing that Good exists even if everything points to the contrary and that the Universe will provide for us if we keep our hearts open. Miracles cannot be explained by reason or logic. They belong to another realm. Someone mentioned the good will we hd gained over the years, but then the person who reached out was unknown to me till July 2016 and has never seen Project WHY!

I know everyone will want to analyse the whys and the who and play the game by the rules: the cops, the investigation, the endless to and fro to the police station. It needs to be done even if we are unlikely to find the stolen goods. That is the game of life.

I will simply thank the Universe for all lessons learnt.

 

 

Back for the day#GivingTuesday#India

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It was lovely to have Shalini back for a ‘day’ to join the Project WHY annual picnic that she has never missed for the past decade. This year she almost did as for the past months brave Shalini has been nursing her ailing mother. The often difficult stubborn special ‘child’ became the rock her family could lean on when the need arose. Her mom who passed away a few days after this picture was taken, had been bedridden for many months and needed to be cared for and the only one at hand was our Shalini. The father is very old and in poor health and her brother and sister-in-law work to ensure that needs are met leaving behind two young children to be taken care of.

Shalini did everything needed from washing clothes, to caring to her mother’s needs to looking after the kids. The once spoilt one was now the one to depend on. And she did it all with a smile.

When, a few days before the picnic, her teachers went to her home to request that she be allowed to join her friends, she was a very proud mom’s little helper and had to tell them everything she did.  Needless to say her teachers well super appreciative.  Her father was kind enough to allow her to come and she spent quality time with her best friend Geetu. The smiles in the picture say it all.

We never knew things would change so soon as now with her mom gone, the possibility of her becoming the ‘house help’ forever looms large. Another deafening WHY!

That is the plight of many children with special needs after the demise of their parents, more so if they are highly functional like our darling S. No one really pays any heed to their wants and aspirations. It is to address this very need that we had wanted to have a residential home for our children with special needs to give them a safe haven for life.

We will have to tread with care in our ‘mission’ to get Shalu back. We will have to negotiate and will use every trick in the book to do so. Our aim is to have her come at least for a few hours every day so that she can laugh and dance to her heart’s content.

Wish us luck!

The spirit behind Project WHY #GivingTuesday#India

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Ramchundur Goburdhun 15 August 1911- 29 November 1992

Most know us as Project WHY only. A few know that our legal identity is the Sri Ram Goburdhun Charitable Trust. And not many know who Ram was and yet if not for he, there might not have been Project WHY.

Ram or Ramchundur Goburdhun is my father.

He wore many caps through his life each with great aplomb and in his own inimitable way. As a student in his native island where the portly man I know was the mile champion of his island and admired by many young ladies! As a law student in London where passionate speeches at Hyde Park Corner would bring the needed coins to end the month. As a lawyer and then Magistrate back home where the trodden path may have led to a political career. As a perfect gentleman who courted his wife to be at times when courting was not quite known in a just freed India. As a career diplomat where his honesty, integrity, savoir faire and endearing personality were huge assets. But it is none of these that were the seeds of Project WHY. It is Ram the father who planted that seed and carefully watered it till his last breath.

If one was to look at my growing up years, they seem out of a dream: beautiful homes, governesses, criss crossing the world and the best of everything. Ram was aware of this and was careful to place the little notes needed to build a person. He always sent me to local schools where he knew I would rub shoulders with real people and learn to respect and love them. He with the help of my mama laid some unwritten rules that were needed to teach their only child true values. Toys were only bought at Xmas. The new dress was a birthday gift. Wasting food was a no no! But the one lesson that remains engrained is the Diwali blessing. After the prayers were over, Ram would tell me to go and touch the feet of everyone in the house who was older to me. That meant everyone including the staff that worked in our home. What is remarkable is that I never questioned this or resented it and that is because of the simple answer to my first why was: because they are older and will bless you.

Ram taught be compassion but he also taught me to respect every human being irrespective of their caste, creed, social background. With mama’s help he showed me how religion is one and all religions need to be respected. Again it was a well thought lesson plan based on my questions: can I fast with my Muslim friend, go to church, share a Sabbath dinner. The answer was always ‘yes’ with a small caveat: provided it does not hurt the other.

I could write volumes but that is not the point. Today I simply want to express my profound gratitude and unconditional love to the man who made me who I am.

The Sri Ram Goburdhun Charitable Trust was set up to honour his memory and to tell him that every lesson learnt at his knee had been well learnt. And most of all the last one murmured on his deathbed: have faith in India.

I miss him every minute of my life though I see him in every Project WHY child.

Let us burn schools down #GivingTuesday#India

burnschoolThe burning of schools in Kashmir vindicates the belief that education is the most powerful agent of change. Destroying a school destroys the future of children forever. Education is a powerful tool. The question lies in the way you use it.

In the early years of Project Why we were faced with a certain amount of resentment that was even aggressive at times. This bewildered us as in our book education was something everyone should encourage and cherish. But that was not the case with us.

We were ‘evicted’ from the corner of a park by local residents and politicians. It was a clever ploy. We were told that we would be ‘give’ another park and marched to one that was a pig stye, as a local resident reared his pigs in it. The once children park was a stinking rubbish dump. Our detractors must have expected outrage and protest but all they got was a warm Thank You! They had not yet tasted the spirit of Project WHY. If this is what we got, so be it! We would work our magic. A series of negotiations with the owner of the pigs who was known for his muscle flexing and the help of a few friends, not only was the park divided between the hogs and us, we transformed the park into a lovely space. It had a huge yellow tented roof and plants all around.

The truce lasted a year. The next attack was bulldozers. It transpired that the park was now needed to ‘build’ a community centre. We moved lock stock and barrel to the roadside. But classes never stopped. The game continued for a while and then petered down.

It took us a while to understand the reason for such vehement resentment and then the penny dropped. Education was acceptable if it followed the norms, these being teachers from one side of the divide and students from the other. But that was not the Project WHY model, for us teachers and kids came from the same source. That meant social transformation and that was not acceptable. We were changing minds, teaching children to think for themselves, urging them to ask questions and giving them a voice. In short we were empowering a community and that could be dangerous.

Everything in the book was thrown at us from threats to spreading false rumours but we did not budge. We simply wore them down. Education came out the winner and so it will remain

 

What this world needs is a new kind of army – the army of the kind.” #GivingTuesday#India

 

utpalcompassionLike any teenager, Utpal often calls from boarding school to ask for something or the other usually food as at his age kids seem perpetually hungry or for a book of some kind. So when he called last week we were expecting ‘chips’ or ‘cookies’ and were very surprised when the demand was ‘toys’ for a toddler. He knew there were some in the store room, relics of years gone by as the grandson and he became big boys.

The toys were meant for the son of the sister of the lady who runs the canteen, one of his favourite place! Utpal had made friends with little Deepak and in true Utpal style had adopted him. When we visited the canteen with the toys of course we were taken aback when the little fellow jumped out of his mom’s lap and straight into Utpal’s arms. This brought a huge smile on our faces and even a lump in our throats. The love between the two was palpable and quickly confirmed by the mom when she told us that if the little child cried all you had to say was that Utpal was there and the tears stopped mid cheek and little eyes darted in all direction.

Utpal has always been a kind and warm hearted child always willing to share. In spite of being a cool teenager his love for younger children is remarkable and the patience and kindness he shows are moving.

One wonders if compassion is taught or innate. This is a difficult question as in this day and age one sees too little of it around.

Perhaps a bit of both.

One wonders how some children show compassion at an early age. In our list of volunteers we have many children, some now quite grown up but still as compassionate. We have had children who have given up birthday presents and asked their friends to donate to Project Why, we have had children who have sold lemonade or baked cakes to collect money for us. Some older ones have come and taught at Project Why giving up their precious school holidays.

I remember the little girl in an orphanage our school use to take us to when we lived in Saigon who undoubtedly played an important part in making me who I am. I am still haunted by her beautiful black eyes that crinkled when she saw me and smiled. That smile is seared in my heart.

Education is not just teaching the famed 3 Rs. Children have to be taught values and this can only happen if parents and school make that effort wholeheartedly.

I was impressed by an initiative taken St Louis where my grandson lives. It is called READ – RIGHT – RUN.  The program’s goal is to develop reading-proficient, community-minded and physically fit children in grades K-5 by challenging them to READ 26 books, RIGHT the community with 26 good deeds, and RUN 26.2 miles over a six-month period. My 6 year old grandson participated and made grandma proud. How wonderful if we had a similar programme for all our children.

It is our duty as elders to teach compassion to our children.

Agastya’s first school was the Project WHY creche and his interaction with children from less privileged homes opened his heart forever.

It is important to water the seed of compassion every child carries in her/his heart and to do that it is imperative to answer disturbing questions with honest answers. Hiding reality or shielding children does more harm than good.

How compassionate a child can be best exemplified in Malte’s story:

Malte was eight when he arrived in Delhi with his parents to live here for four years. The small German boy immediately fell in love with the country. He enjoyed everything: the food, the music, Bollywood movies, the temples, mosques and bazars. Being blond he always attracted a lot of attention everywhere he went. So after a little while he could lead expert conversations on Bollywood actors or cricket with everyone and was blessed with tons of caring kindness.

The only issue that really disturbed him and made his life miserable in Delhi was to see all the poverty and suffering in the streets. Every afternoon returning from his privileged school in Chanakya Puri he passed by a busy traffic light seeing the same beggar children asking for money. It broke his heart to see and hear of their daily struggle. Why did he have such a privileged and enjoyable life while these children of the same age did not even have shoes to wear or clean water to drink. So his sister and he came up with the idea to make small packages of dry fruits to hand out to the street children. But still, that did not feel enough, they were fast finished and nothing had changed. Too much misery for these small packages of sweetness.

When his mother started to work with Project Why Malte heard a lot of slum children also having a difficult life but now thanks to Project Why with a chance to learn and alter their future. One Saturday morning he came along and saw by himself how a small group of committed people was trying to make a longer-lasting difference for a lot of kids. He was amazed to meet with the children, see their smiles on their faces and their eagerness to learn. A couple of weeks later he took his cub scout group to white-wash the newly renovated Okhla Centre. They all joined hands with the Project Why children to make the centre colourful and even more a happy place to be. And he felt a deep joy. He finally found a way and place where poverty was not accepted as a fate but as challenge to overcome! And where he – a ten year old boy – could make a difference.

So he decided with his 2 friends Stefan and Scottie to do even more. They came up with the idea of running a donation drive in their school. They designed colourful posters to show Project Why’s work, asked the special kids to colour and decorate traditional piggy banks (gulak) to collect donations. With everything prepared they got up really early for one week during the freezing month of December, built up their stand at the school entrance and asked all children, teachers and parents passing by to give a donation for Project Why. Even the school principal and the American Ambassador were impressed and eagerly squeezed their donation in one of the gulaks. And with raised funds Project Why could buy a Bamboo roof for the Okhla centre giving shelter to the students during the harsh summer and winter months.

Since then Malte feels part of the Project Why family, asking about the different children, always happy to join his mother for a visit. Again and again he gives away his pocket money to buy school supplies. And every time he is overwhelmed by the poverty in India he thinks of something new he can do for Project Why knowing that at least his friends there will enjoy a different future.

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So how do children like Utpal and Malte, both from opposite sides of the world learn compassion?

My guess is that they are the blessed few who see with their hearts.