FOI Board’s Field Visit, February 2019

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‘You’re off to India – again?  I thought you were closing down!’ This was the greeting from a number of our long-time friends and supporters when they heard about our plans for 2019 as the entire FOI Board – Pam, Ted, Diana, Clare and Jan – set off  for India, arriving in Chennai in early February.  Well, it is true that we have been considering all the options – from carrying on as before, to closing down completely, to reducing our scope and focussing on just a few projects.  And if so, which ones?   It was in part to answer the many questions that these options raise that we decided that a field monitoring visit was essential this year – would it be to say goodbye? Or would it perhaps confirm some gut feelings about our future?

The Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind

First on our itinerary was a visit to the music school founded 9 years ago in memory of Pam’s late husband, Richard Walsh.  We were guests of honour at the Annual Day celebrations, with a concert under a shady awning in the school grounds attended by all the students, staff and many parents.  Pam presented prizes funded by FOI to outstanding students and it was a great pleasure to see some of the instruments, donated by YOU our supporters, being played.  The container of instruments, lockers, school furniture and play equipment sent from Geneva last summer had finally made it across the ocean to Tamil Nadu and we were able to see many of the items being put to good use at the School for the Blind and later during our visit.

After discussions, we realized that specialist teachers were needed to help students master their new musical instruments, and we agreed to fund part-time music teachers for the coming year.

Another important need was pointed out to us – the kitchen! Although the school is home to 120 blind and partially sighted children from 5 to 17, all meals are cooked in a lean-to shelter in large cauldrons over a wood fire.  Food preparation has to be done on the ground as there are no work surfaces.  The shelter is smoky and open to all weather, making it a difficult and unpleasant task for the cook and her two helpers. The school has asked government authorities in vain for help to renovate the cooking facilities, and so appealed to us. It is a big task, but much needed and we shall try to find the necessary funding. All suggestions welcome!

Education scholarships for children in Kovalam

For many years, FOI has assisted the Kovalam fishing community. Back in 2003, the Geneva English School (GES) helped build a community centre providing after-school care, snacks and homework supervision for poor children. After the devastation of the 2004 tsunami we also funded 3 new fishing boats, nets and construction materials for families who had lost everything. So it was a great pleasure to escape the endless traffic jams in Chennai and drive 40 kms south along the coast road to revisit the village and meet our old friend Narayanan the fisherman.  We were guests of honour at a music and dance display at the GES Community Centre and met some of the families and young people who use the Centre, which has been spruced up since our last visit, with a new coat of paint and a well tended yard and garden behind it.

Kovalam has developed over the years and the beach with its white sands and new rows of souvenir shops and busy snack bars has become a tourist attraction for Chennai weekenders.  But life has not changed much for the poorest families – widows and families abandoned by their fathers are particularly at risk.  We agreed to try to fund education scholarships for some of the most vulnerable children.

Helping disabled young people

While in Chennai, we visited a project that we helped, along with the Don du Choeur, back in 2005.  It has today become completely self sufficient – one of our key objectives.  It was a delight to see the Anbumalar School for the Differently Abled still run by the same family and now providing education and physical rehabilitation for 30 seriously disabled children.  The school is surrounded by a well tended garden and orchard. A large chicken run provides eggs and chickens for sale locally, helping school funds. The principal, Mr Selvaraj, explained that the school provides skills training and we met a group of older teenage boys learning to make rugs. It was heart-breaking to see the more severely disabled children in the physiotherapy rooms, but we felt encouraged by the positive, caring atmosphere, bright classrooms and the warm welcome we received from staff and children.

Tirunelveli and the Holy Angels BCV International School

A short flight from Chennai brought us to Tirunelveli and a welcome from our old friends the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, who have been our partners in Tamil Nadu for the past 10 years.  We were excited to see the BCV International School again, and in particular the new primary school which opened just last year thanks to support from some very generous donors. We were treated to a splendid outdoor school assembly with songs and speeches to welcome us, before being shown some of the classrooms where desks, donated by a number of private schools in Geneva, are being used.

The school was created five years ago to provide top quality international, English language education for a mix of paying and scholarship children.  The ‘scholarship’ children are all from the poorest and lowest caste in India, who used to be known as Dalits, or ‘untouchables’. Although the caste system has been officially abandoned, it is still prevalent. Girls in particular are subject to discrimination, often drop out or leave school to be married, and are vulnerable to abuse.  Our school gives Dalit children a chance to escape poverty and discrimination, and raises aspirations through quality education. The school is not yet self-sufficient, largely because it is waiting for secondary accreditation to add 8-12th grades, but we very much hope that this will happen shortly.  Meantime, we want to fund scholarships directly through a new Scholarship Fund, named in memory of Jan’s late husband, Chris Powell.  So far we are able to fund 12 scholarship children at the BCV School and 8 in Kovalam, thanks to the wonderful support of you, our friends, who are contributing to the fund.

We were eager to meet some of the girls we are helping, and Jan and Clare went home with a little 9 year old called Joyce (holding the baby in the photo).  She lives in a small Dalit village about 10 kms from the school, in a 2 room house with her brother, her parents and grandparents. Her father is a day labourer earning around 3 CHF a day, hardly enough for a large family to live on. Joyce told us she wants to be a teacher one day and loves her school.  She is typical of the girls that, together, we are helping reach their full potential and make something of their lives.

When most of the team left Tirunelveli, Diana our education expert stayed on for a further ten days to continue her valuable work, reviewing and training teachers, and supporting the management team. Her reputation has spread and she was invited to carry out teacher training presentations at two more large schools in the area.

The Friendship Home

Close to the BCV School is the Friendship Home for children living with HIV/AIDS. We were thrilled to visit the home which we founded 10 years ago, and to see the new toilet and shower block for the girls, created thanks to a very generous supporter. In the heat of the early evening, we were once again welcomed with bindis, sweets and garlands, followed by an official ribbon-cutting ceremony  and inspection of the spacious blue-tiled showers, toilets  and washing area.  The new block is connected to the main building so the girls no longer have to go outside at night, making the toilets safer as well as more convenient. It was wonderful to hear that some of the young people in the home are moving on to further education.

Musical Inspiration in the Gatt foothills

After a few days rest in Kerala, we set off for our final visit – a rather gruelling 8 hour car journey to the town of Kumily, in the foothills of the Gatts, and our base for the last part of our visit. We appreciated the higher altitude and cool evenings, as well as views over a national park where buffalo came to drink in a natural pool in the early mornings. The town is isolated but busy with small hotels catering for park visitors, contrasting with the poor rural villages on the road up. A two hour drive took us to see our final school, run by Brother Muthu, who was the inspiration behind the Music School for the Blind. Here we were joined by Kathrin Baetschmann who has spent several months working in our schools in Tamil Nadu.  We were given a tour of the school which is poor and overcrowded.  Many of the two thousand children come from distant villages and board at the school. In one large hall, 300 students sleep on mats on the floor.

Brother Muthu has taken his love of music with him. We were treated to more whirling dancers, speeches and a resounding welcome from the school band, which consisted of only drums.  Muthu wants instruments to make a real band – a band that would inspire the students, give them pride in their school and raise aspirations for their future.  We were convinced and decided to see what we could do to help.  Other requests included fitting out kindergarten classrooms which for the moment we had to say was beyond our capacity.

What next?

After three weeks which had been fascinating, enriching, exhausting, thought-provoking … it was time to return to the calm, order and cold weather awaiting us in Geneva.  So what of our hopes that this visit would help us make firm decisions about FOI’s future?  As always, after our visits to India we felt excited and inspired, and more aware than ever that though India is a fast developing nation, the poorest of the poor are being left far behind.  Girls and women in particular seem to be stuck in a time warp, subject to deep-rooted discrimination, still suffering abuse and life-limiting expectations.  The needs are still great.  Could we find a way to continue our long-standing relationship with Tamil Nadu, while avoiding taking on massive new commitments?

Perhaps we can.  Having developed such personal relationships with our projects, we do not feel ready to let them drop. The children and young adults we help rely on us. But we will try not to take on new projects, and must be stringent about where we give our support.  We will not fund any further large capital projects but will focus on the people and activities that take place inside the buildings. Our focus will be on education scholarships, teacher training, and supporting specialist staff.  In certain situations, like the kitchen for the Blind School, we will try to find partners or co-sponsors who may be able to help.

So that’s it!  We want to continue our work in Tamil Nadu.  But we cannot do it without your help and encouragement which are  vital to us and to the young people in Tamil Nadu whose lives you are changing every day. Please go to our DONATE page, to see how you can support us.

Finally, we want to send you, our supporters, a huge hug and thank you!

The FOI Board –  Pam Walsh OBE, Jan Powell, Clare Schenker, Ted Talbot and Diana Smith

FOI PRIORITY PROJECTS FOR 2019:

The Chris Powell Scholarship Fund – education grants  for 30 Dalit children in Tirunelveli and Kovalam  – CHF 15’000

Kitchen for the Blind School, with equipment – CHF 11’000

Specialist music teaching at the Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind – CHF 5’400

School band musical instruments – CHF 2’750

Teacher training and leadership – CHF 2’000

TOTAL – CHF 36’150

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