My life is truly enriched by a few passionate friends. I’m not only driven by their energy and dedication as seen through Facebook updates and media coverage. I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in their journey, be the listening ear to their struggles and sometimes, like now, a helping hand as well. Take the case of 17000ft Foundation, started by Sujata Sahu and Sandeep Sahu.
Sujata and Sandeep were my next door neighbours. In the the two years or so that we shared a floor, I was thrilled to be occasionally admitted into the fun and frolic in their menagerie of a house (5 kids, 2 dogs, and some more in the nooks and corners). Somewhere between the chatting and eating and drinking (oh yes!), we discovered a shared passion for the social sector and I saw in my friends a will to change the status quo that most of us simply accept.
Both of them were passionate trekkers and outdoor enthusiasts and I remember envying Sujata her solo trek in Ladakh. Then the flash floods happened there and talk changed into action. Sujata, then a teacher at Shriram School, ably partnered by Sahu, plunged into Mission Julley. I’ve written before (read here) about how they came in with a refreshingly practical perspective to ‘aid’, throwing existing systems out of the window and adopting a hands-on approach that directly and effectively reached remote communities. By the end of this endeavor, the duo was hooked. Despite all odds, they decided to look at transforming the experience of schoolchildren in the remote areas of Ladakh. 17000ft was born!
From mapping schools in the State to bringing in infrastructure, from setting up libraries to training teachers, 17000ft Foundation has worked hard to bring meaningful and practical value additions to how Ladakhi children learn. They also run a successful Voluntourist Program that helps bring a little revenue to the Foundation, but more importantly, leverages on the enthusiasm and knowledge of trekkers and vacationers to contribute to the development of this remote mountainous region.
17000ft, which already reaches out to 25,000 schoolchildren and covers Leh district is now expanding to Kargil district as well. Behind the success of 17000ft, I know, has been the anxiety and toil of its founders, who have braved personal uncertainties and risks to make this possible. Like any other not-for-profit, funding challenges and the need for recognition are two sides of the same coin and I see Sujata and Sandeep struggling to keep that coin in circulation even as they work on logistics and operations on a day-to-day basis. Sujata pinged me on Facebook Messenger yesterday with an astute obervation. “More than anything else, people need to talk about and write about the not for profits they know,” she said. “It’s not just about visibility and funding, endorsements helps me keep the faith, something I’m in the danger of losing every now and then.” I, for one, am not about to let Sujata lose her faith!
Help 17000ft keep the faith!
While I do my bit by blogging about their incredible work, Nalina Suresh, a friend and ardent supporter of 17000ft has been running marathons to raise funds for the Foundation’s work. On the 23rd of this month, she is running the Delhi Airtel Half Marathon for this cause as well. Click here to donate and help build libraries for schools in Kargil!
We have a weekend club going about once a month for a few children. Usually, one of the parents facilitates some interesting activity and this time I volunteered. The idea was to get the kids to think and write creatively, focusing on narration.
The children, seven children aged about 6-9, were first asked to talk about their current favorite book or story, highlighting what they particularly like. Words from their narration were written on chits, which were then folded and placed in a box. The chits were jumbled and each child picked about 4, using which they had to come up with a story of their own, in written!
The results varied, but some attempts were pretty amazing. Aarush, younger than the rest, made up for lack of writing speed with his brevity. He wrote :
Once aliens invaded the galaxy. they used to be eating dictnory’s for power. the aliens were as stupid as idiots. like if sombody said something to them they jumped about.
I’ve transcribed the spellings and punctuation precisely to indicate that skill levels have nothing to do with how well someone can narrate! This was simply amazing. The other kids were also quite appreciative.
Nitya’s piece was notable as well, in which she described the joy experienced by a geeky kid who got to spend a day with his favorite author Roald Dahl. Most interestingly, they “ate ice-creams, they went to a movie and had lots of fun.”
The second exercise split the kids into two groups. They were each given a picture cut out from Lonely Planet Magazine. They were to include the picture in a verbal narration. One group, which included Udai, Utsa, Aarush and Aryan (below), chose to each make a story; then they found a clever way to weave it all together into one story and they took turns to narrate different bits. Nicely and confidently done.
Sushant and Nitya (below), on the other hand, decide to dramatize their narration, even weaving the toy wooden horse into the tale and using it as a prop!
Medha, who had opted out of this activity, was a bit sulky at this point. To cheer her up, I gave them a short lecture-demo on how a solo actor can essay multiple roles on stage, or show the audience that there are other imaginary people with her on stage.
Four children chose to go solo with the ‘dramatize a picture’ format. Medha did a really professional puppet show (I was so engrossed, I don’t have pics!) using the little half wall in the room (she was quick to spot that opportunity, totally appreciate that!). All the others did a great job of incorporating the elements I had spoken of in their little skits. Pretty amazed we were to see how quickly they picked up the nuances and were able to translate it into their own imagination and the context of their narrative!
Well done, kids! We have a lot to learn from you all…..
So I finally made it to the book fair today, with mum. It was heartening to see the sprawling, enormous fair spread over many halls bustling with families, kids in tow. With nani and mumma wanting to buy kiddie books, we headed straight for Hall No 14, where the children’s book were supposed to be.
However, instead of seeing colorful story books and delightful fantasy, we were confronted with rows and rows of stalls displaying:
1- Bizarre, technical books and charts that would help your child practice cursive writing, read the alphabet better, learn the tables better, learn names of fruits, vegetables, animals and so on and so forth
2- Knowledge enhancing category of books ranging from plain boring to creative, curriculum related to the extra knowledge and trivia variety, many many books on science math and general knowledge particularly
3- E-learning software- We saw a screen with a voice that drones “billi, c-a-t cat, this is a cat”, with the picture of a, well, cat! We saw a stall where smart execs counseled (read gave them the spiel!!) parents about the merits of giving their children more exposure via their online programs, CD-ROMs etc. The parents looked completely zonked as if they were getting life’s gyaan and the kiddos were knee-high in most cases!
The sight of the above terrified me today. What are we wanting to turn our children into? What is this crazed competitive society we have created where kids barely out of diapers are expected to fill scores of cursive writing booklets and fill color into outlines of various objects and toon characters till eternity; then move on to solving puzzles, go through personality development modules, memorize general knowledge and trivia by rote, do math using a confusing array of techniques…and much, much more? Why are parents so paranoid? It’s not that these books and technologies aren’t necessary, but the sheer volume of labels, brands creating these had me stumped and the quality was mostly questionable, at first glance, with some exceptions of course.
I spoke with a sales manager with one e-learning stall who was giving me the ‘kids need exposure’ story. Kids already have so much exposure, I told him. What is wrong with growing up with less aids and more creativity using simple things like blocks, books, free art? Isn’t it all, ultimately, to sell your stuff? He gave up and grinned and waved me away! I was, in his head, the crazed, irresponsible parent, bent on leaving my kids in the dark ages!
Another thing that disturbed me was the emphasis on math and sciences and precious little focus on the social sciences, life skills, all round development for kids (the personality development modules did not inspire confidence; again, they looked like a con job to me!). After seeming to have come a long way, we middle class urban Indians are still stuck in the ‘sciencies are best, artsies are the losers’ trap..very sad indeed.
Lastly, the children’s fiction I saw confirmed my fears that we live in a firmly gender-divided world, from about age ten onwards. Except for classics like Ruskin Bond and Kipling, the new books were (mostly) geeky and techy and macho for the guys and flowery pink ‘n purple for the girls. Utterly disgusting, to say the least!
The stalls from Katha, Pratham, National Book Trust and some others were a saving grace and we managed to haul up a bunch of delightful books for both Udai and Aadyaa. The Indian publications are real value for money; the foreign ones often not worth the crazy prices!
As for us, we feasted on the Rupa and Penguin stalls and came home loaded with a satisfying haul of books for the entire family 🙂