A walk across the street into a new world

Yesterday morning, a group of the Australian students, Matt, our new videographer/photographer intern, and myself went to Indiranagar, the slum community across the street from campus, to pick up the children and bring them to CRHP’s Joyful Learning Preschool. Meena, their sweet, warm and kind-hearted teacher, and Kaat, a woman who fell in love with CRHP, especially the preschool, in 1994 when she enrolled in our Diploma Course and has since become a much-appreciated donor, led us on the eye-opening morning stroll.

Although it is merely a 30-second walk from CRHP’s main gate, Indiranagar is not a project village. An essential element of forging a bond with a potential project village is CRHP’s building of rapport and trust with the community members: Indiranagar is ‘home’ to many nomads who leave every six months or so to work in sugar factories, and to a constant influx of people who have nowhere else to go. CRHP has tried to work with the community and train a Village Health Worker on three separate occasions, yet all have been defeated by the rough and uncooperative community. Only last year, when the drought was so terrible, did the community leaders reach out to CRHP for help.

Though I run past it a couple times a week, I had never ventured into the community. Here are some observations, as well as stories Kaat and Meena told us about the various families they’ve come to know over the years:

  • A family brewing moonshine, which sells for 10 rupees/glass (25 cents). Alcoholism is a big problem in the slum, so making moonshine is a semi-stable income. The cyclically destructive nature of this issue is quite obvious: making and selling more moonshine fuels the fire of alcoholism and abuse.
  • Renuku is 4½, with a scar on her forehead from when her father tried to kill her. Born dumb, she was (and is) ostracized by her family. Last spring, Meena spotted her sitting alone, too weak to swat the flies out from her eyes and nose. Since coming to the preschool, she has begun to smile, make eye contact, and use easy signs to show what she wants. Her family still does not accept her.
  • Uncleanliness was one of the main concerns when the school began. Meena used to give children baths on campus, but she soon realized that she needed to instead teach the mothers how to care for their children. It became a rule that kids who were not bathed could not come to school. Though heart breaking to send ‘dirty’ children back home, the value of bathing and cleanliness has been made clear. Children who go to preschool are distinguishable by their cleaner clothes, washed faces and combed hair.
  • Tons of children, probably between ages of 6-10, are all over the place! Are they going to go to school? Meena points out families who stubbornly resist sending their kids to preschool, instead bringing them to beg.
  • As we turn a corner, a man who is visibly drunk stumbles and addresses us in a slurred attempt at English. I hear someone say, “Being drunk looks the same around the world”.
  • The enormous pink building I’ve been wondering about for the past 5 months is finally revealed to be a boarding school built by the Indian government two years ago. A prime example of the government doing something just to check it off of their list, to simply say its been done, the school was vacant for a year because there were no teachers. Now, about 80 children attend. The building is twice as big as CRHP’s hospital, probably five times as big as our preschool. It is a prime example of how community cooperation and input is vital to making a program successful.

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slum children, and puppies, pose for a picture – Indiranagar

photo credit: Matt Barwick

As we completed our loop and made it back to the center of the community, we immediately saw the CRHP vehicle practically overflowing with children. The group of children that had been walking with us during our tour ran to the car and piled in the back. Meena made a spot for Renuku to sit, and a small arm wrapped around her, a reflex of another child to protect her.

The vehicle began driving away, off to school, and I felt tiny fingers slip out of my grasp. The little girl who had been holding my hand throughout the visit began walking in the opposite direction of the vehicle’s cloud of dust. She looked straight at me as she backed away, and I extended my hand and called to her to come walk with the group. She hesitated, then disappeared around a bend.

The Joyful Learning Preschool is unique for many reasons: Meena is more than a teacher, she also acts as a liaison between CRHP and Indiranagar – when she visits each morning to collect the children, she also visits their families, observes their health situations, and inquires about any community updates; children are taught in both English and Marathi, which is invaluable for future learning, and engage in educational songs; lessons include not only counting and the alphabets, but extend to clean water and basic health topics; every child is given two nutritious meals each day they come to school.

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Meena, our jubilant preschool teacher, and her daughter, Angel – CRHP

It is truly an enriching and happy learning environment, and a hiatus from the difficult life that exists across the road. Meena is kind and comforting and genuinely bubbly – a beautiful mother to her own two children, as well as the fifty or so children she teaches and looks after daily. CRHP is very excited to announce the grand opening of a second preschool building, which will occur later this week.

Perhaps if she hears of a new preschool center on campus, the little girl who held my hand will find her way to school.

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a recent fellows/interns project was painting the outside of the new preschool; can you spot the pattern? – CRHP

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