...Without giving away too much too soon, Squalor to Scholar will soon be surpassing a momentous milestone. Plans are well underway with multiple schools that will allow us to surpass the century mark and bring the total number of our students to 116! As you know, these children are viewed as inferior, less capable, and sometimes even unworthy of a world-class education. It is our intention, however, to prove otherwise. In less than a year, our 21 original students have proven to themselves and the world that, indeed, they are worth it.
--Three of our newest students: Simran, Roshani, and Seeta--
Approximately 200 million people in India are of the Scheduled (aka Untouchable, Dalit, or Shudra) caste that I mentioned in the previous post. We will soon be supporting 0.00005% of this often ignored population! Sure, that's a small percentage but it is an undertaking that is sustainable, effective, and inspirational. As my father would say, the camel's nose is in the tent. We will spring from here to tackle the educational and public health challenges of India on a much more macro level while remaining fully aware of the needs and issues of the people our work will target.
Our pursuit here, however, has been and will be focused on quality, not quantity. These children are more than numbers or statistics; they are breathing, vivacious human beings who not only yearn for knowledge but have the potential to teach us about ourselves.
All in all, the 116 children who will soon be under our care will receive every resource necessary to excel in their top-tier schools, graduate from 12th standard (the equivalent of high school), and attend college or vocational school. Over the next 12-14 years of their primary and secondary educations, our students will, combined, rack up nearly 2,500,000 hours of classroom learning! That's the equivalent of more than 285 years!
I was walking and laughing with our current students the other day when the boys started energetically impersonating superheroes. They acted like they were shooting webs from their wrists, simulating roundhouse kicks, and flying as fast as possible down the street. I joined in as Ironman and pretended to fire up the rocket engines in my boots and gloves. Ajeet ran over to me and, quite seriously, said, "John Bhaiya...you...are...superhero!" I asked, "Which one? Spiderman? Superman? Batman? Ironman?..." He stopped walking and contemplated with his hand on his chin and eyes looking toward the sky. He then responded with a big smile on his face, "No...you...are...Johnman!"
The true heroes here, however, are our talented students, their perseverant families, and, of course, the generous sponsors and donors who make all of this possible! Just think...this time last year, we still did not have a single student enrolled in school. Within the next couple of weeks, we will surpass 100!
Last night, a close friend of mine from home was on CNBC providing market analysis after the closing bell. I watched the video of it tonight online. There he was in a suit and tie, looking great at age 25, making his predictions as a burgeoning expert in the field. I told my fellow volunteers who jokingly noted, "And look at you, sitting inside a mosquito net next to a slum wearing a ski hat to stay warm!"
I laughed at the irony. However, there is nowhere I would rather be (ok...I lied...a hot shower at home and some of Mom's lasagne would be pretty stellar right now). However, from this mosquito net, I can trade stocks, follow world news, promote human rights, and conduct research on local and international levels. I can bring thousands of people around the world together and shine light on problems that are overlooked even by those who live right next to them. Welcome to the 21st century!
One of the first questions I am often asked about Squalor to Scholar is, "How do you choose the students?" To me, this is the hardest part of our job. Not a day goes by when a mother or child does not beg me for admission into a school. Many criteria go into each selection and it is difficult to convey why we can help some people and not others. It's one thing to deny someone money or food here because that individual will, sooner or later, likely obtain what they need. That's an instinct of survival. However, education is not an immediate necessity. Among the "to-do list" of the poor in India, education usually ranks pretty low, somewhere near long term personal health.
Over the past year here, however, we have brought the topic of education to the forefront of every parent's mind. That, in and of itself, is a victory.
Three days ago, we printed out formal applications containing our important criteria and sat down unannounced in the slum at 9:30am. We planned on registering just a few children. The news spread like wildfire. Members of our team filled out applications continuously for the next 11 hours!
Due to such an overwhelming response from the community, we've begun creating a database of all eligible slum children ages 2-10 so that we have a permanent record of their biographic and family information. In three days, we've processed more than 200 applications. Each application takes considerable time and effort, as nearly every parent in the slums is illiterate and a member of our team must fill out the entire form.
--Volunteer Mira Patel speaking to a parent who has come for registration--
Luckily for us, volunteer Mira Patel speaks Hindi! She has been an incredible addition to our team and has certainly boosted productivity. Mira, Mamta, and Mithlesh do all of the speaking and documenting to assist families.
--Volunteer Bethea Robertson evaluating one of the applicants--
Bethea then evaluates the students individually and attempts to determine their basic knowledge, interactivity, estimated potential, current abilities, and degree of family support. Faith and I then obtain their photographs for our ability to recall, find, and identify the children later.
Lucky might just turn out to have the perfect name! We'll let you know in a couple of weeks where he ends up.
Our 15 newest students are thriving in the classroom and impressing even the sisters. These are some recent photos of them leaving school this week. Their pristine new uniforms are currently being made.
--Anjali (the third one on the bicycle)--
--Sadna and Raj Nandani in the back of a cycle wagon--
--Neha, Ajeet, and Gudiya walking back to their homes after walking me home--
Last night, Prianka returned from Bihar to re-visit her surgeon in Delhi. She had a smile on her face and tears in her eyes when she saw me. Her benign tumor has continued to grow despite her previous surgery. She was admitted to the hospital today and will have another highly invasive surgery tomorrow morning. She's my superhero tonight. Her surgeon will be her superhero tomorrow. Please keep her and her loving father in your thoughts and prayers.
To all those who have supported us this year and made the educations of 116 children and surgeries like Prianka's possible, thank you!