Lorrie Lenn King and Lavya Teams Visit in her own words to the Vandemataram Foundation

Source: Lavya Initiative

Wednesday, 15 December

The thing about life in rural India, is that what normally takes a week to transpire, can be crammed into the events of a single day. I'm not referring to expedient bureaucracy, rather I am speaking to a phenomenon which only travel seems to induce.

Since 7 a.m., I've been watching the scenery. With each new bend of the road, I wish for a satellite camera behind my eyes, to telecast the wonders I'm taking in: rock outcroppings, stone forts carved into the mountainside, dry riverbeds, palm trees, troops of monkeys, women drying rice in the road, cotton fields. Our car stops at bridge. A crane is lifting a bus that has crashed out of the river. A little further on, we are stopped again. This time, to be blessed by religious pilgrims on foot, celebrating their way from temple to temple.

Around noon, we reach our destination, a training conference in the Thorrur region of Andra Pradesh, facilitated by the Vandemataram Foundation. We are received by Mr. Sri Ravinder, a tireless child rights and education advocate, who has devoted his life to empowering students and changing the education system across India.

The workshop we are visiting, is focused on mentorship training, and was birthed from a series of studies by the Vandemataram Foundation (VF) and other child rights/education groups, which found the following:

*The average teacher to student ratio in Andrha Pradesh is 1 to 55.

*Parents who can afford to do so, are sending their children to private schools, where both education standard for students and pay scale for instructors are far higher. The results are two- fold: 1.) Children left behind suffer not just from lack of resources/opportunities afforded by higher social strata and family income, but 2.) teachers left in rural government school zones are paid less and have little motivation, as there is no standardized catchment system for testing or job performance ratings in place.

*It is estimated that 43,000 of 360,000 teachers in Andrha Pradesh are simply not showing up for work.

*A staggering outcome of the aforementioned, is that 65% of students leaving rural government schools can't read or write.

In response, the dedicated team at Vandmataram Foundation (VF) devised a grassroots model of tutoring, based upon the principles of mentoring. It works like this:

Primary schools in India run from grades 1 through 5. Secondary education, or High School, is considered grades 6-10. From grade 10 forward, students are theoretically free to choose going to work, or continuing on to grades +1 and +2, the equivalent of US grades 11 and 12. These two years are dedicated to college prep, whereby students must decide on a vocation/course of study, i.e., engineering, law enforcement, pre-med, etc. The reality is that many students are forced to stop pursuing education after grade 10, either due to lack of funds or early marriage. It is the goal of the Vandemataram Foundation (VF) to facilitate each child in finishing and pursuing the higher learning of their choosing.

To that end, volunteers are selected from grades +1 and +2, to receive a week-long mentorship/tutor training. (Amazingly, the training camp we visited was filled with all girl students!) These volunteers are paid a stipend, tuition and travel expenses, and in turn, will spend two hours per day working with troubled students in one of the rural schools adopted by VF. In addition to providing general studies tutoring, the volunteers provide mini-workshops, which focus on social responsibility, civic engagement and giving back to their respective communities.

The initial results in the 150 schools in which this program runs, have been very promising. Parental participation has sky-rocketed, without which, children are often relegated into forced labor. VF dreams of providing mentorship for each of the 1400 villages and their schools in the Warangal District, and LaVya dreams of bolstering their capacity to do so.

After lunch and tea at the VF training center, we wandered to a neighboring primary school (more on this in Take 2). When we returned, dusk was settling, and we were invited in to the main hall. Removing our shoes (learning institutions are considered sacred), we were ushered forward, to take part in the evening assembly. Kiran, Shridhar and I had settled into a groove of improvised speeches throughout the day, and we assumed this would be no different. At the outset, however, we knew our hearts were in deep, and our heads would be vying to catch up.

First, we were given the honored task of lighting the candles before prayer. Taking turns speaking to the students with Ravinder and the other VF instructors, I felt goosebumps as I turned to read the inscription on a blackboard, "When your commitment is deeper than the sea, And your ambition is taller than the sky, Then your future will be brighter than the sun."

As I turned my attention back to
the room, I realized Ravinder was addressing me directly, "It is tradition, that when a new sister comes to the house, she is received with gifts and blessed with new sari." It still hadn't sunk in. He was talking about me! The next thing I knew, I was surrounded by "little sisters", pinning flowers in hair, decorating my arms with bangles and offering me a platter of fruit and saffron.

I choked back tears and surprise, as I was led down the aisle, where I spent the next 20 minutes giddy as a new bride. I was wrapped in a lustrous gold sari, blessed and bhindi'd, then led back into the lecture hall to applause. In my absence, Kiran and Shridhar had been blessed as brothers and presented with scarves. Scrambling for words, we took to the microphone. It was surreal. An essence of floating in mirth.

When the assembly ended, I was rushed by new sisters. "Sister! A hug, please! Sister! Kiss my cheek!" I felt like a rock star, as paper and pen were thrust my way, waiting for an autograph.


Driving home in euphoric tiredness, I could only think that all I had done was show up. All we had done was care. Yet, it felt like we had eaten the sun.

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