The annual field visit is a high point in the year for the FOI Board, allowing us to see for ourselves how the work we support is progressing, and to learn about the most urgent needs ahead. We do of course get reports from our partners in the field, but there is nothing like being on the spot! This year, Pam Walsh, Ted Talbot, Di Smith and myself, Jan Powell, made up the visiting team which set off for Chennai in February.
During our first couple of days in Chennai we met up with some long-standing partners who have known and supported FOI for many years. On our first morning, it was Dr Amirtham Ammu, founder of the Chris Powell Training Centre for Women and Girls who came from Madurai to meet us. She told us that the Centre could become self-sustaining this year, as she is working with some of the women who complete the tailoring course to train others. She is also building links with local businesses so that items made at the centre can be sold. She needs some help in paying the salary of a full time trainer for the next 6 months, as well as repairing some of the sewing machines and computers, and we agreed to look into contributing to these costs.
Peace and quiet in Kovolam
We were joined for a few days in Chennai by Di and Kurt Klein, keen to see some of the projects they have supported over the years.
Two hours south, through the horrendous Chennai traffic brought us all to the peace and quiet of Kovalam Beach – or so we had hoped! In fact Kovalam has developed in the years since we first visited, and we were surprised by the busy lines of stalls and booths selling snacks, drinks and trinkets for the visiting weekenders from Chennai.
We were warmly welcomed to lunch of freshly caught fish and vegetable curries by fisherman Naryanan of the CARDT (Coastal and Rural Development Trust) and his family, who brought us up to date on the multi-use Community Centre which was built with funds raised by the Geneva English School 10 years ago. It is used chiefly for after- school support and we are looking into ideas for developing wider use of the centre during weekends.
The Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind
A four hour drive south-west, brought us to Arani where our old friend Priscilla Daniels kindly welcomed us to stay for three nights in her home. We spent our first day at the Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind, attending a concert, giving out certificates and prizes, and meeting some of the staff and children. We had a useful meeting with the school director, Br Leveil. who thanked us warmly – and all our donors – for the gift of instruments and funds raised at the Arquebuse Brass Band concert in Geneva last October. The funds have been spent on new keyboards, electronic drum kits, and a sound system. Musical instruments have also been donated, and we discussed the best way to transport them from Geneva to Arani – no easy task given the complexities of Indian bureaucracy. We have enlisted help from our contacts in Chennai to explore some different possibilities.
The school is in need of a fully qualified music teacher to raise standards of teaching and allow students to sit music exams which will in turn improve their chances of finding employment when they leave school. We agreed to assist by paying the salary for the first six months while new sources of long-term funding are identified.
Kitchens for tribal children
The next day we left the heat of Arani and drove high into the Javadi hills, to St Joseph’s School which provides quality education for around 1200 tribal children. This area is extremely remote and neglected, despite the beauty of the natural soundings. We were enthusiastically welcomed by a deafening brass band, garlands of flowers, bindis, incense and a fantastically colourful display of traditional dance and song. We saw school dinners of rice and vegetables being served from a massive cauldron to a long line of waiting children, and Pam was invited to lay the foundation stone for a new kitchen at the girls’ hostel. The old kitchen is a small, leaky, unhygienic shed which fills with smoke. We had agreed to pay half the costs of replacing it during our visit last year and we were relieved to find that another source of funds had been found to make up the difference.
Breaking the poverty cycle through education
Another two hour drive and an internal flight from Chennai took us to Madurai where we were met by a welcoming committee from our old friends and partners on the ground, the Brothers of the Sacred Heart. They kindly drove us to Tirunelveli and the next morning we were at the BCV International School, which we have supported since it started 5 years ago. Since our visit last year, the new primary school building has been renovated and Pam had more opening duties to perform. The school looks wonderful, with shady trees in the front courtyard, and a cool breeze blowing through the classrooms. It was great to meet up with teaching staff and some of the children who knew us from our visit last year.
It was a pleasure also to see the Des George Learning Centre which has been set up in memory of Des in the new primary building, thanks to donations made by his friends and family. The Centre was officially opened by Di Smith who has worked with the school from the start, training teachers, and giving pedagogical guidance. The Centre is partially equipped, and we are looking into ways to get local support for completing the Centre.
The BCV school was started to provide high quality English language education for a mix of paying and scholarship students. The scholarship children are selected from the very poorest backgrounds, known as Dalits, who are victims of India’s officially defunct caste system. Dalits still suffer widespread discrimination, end up doing the most menial ‘dirty’ jobs, and have little chance of breaking out of this cycle of deprivation except through education. We are proud that there are now 75 scholarship children who are flourishing in this innovative school. A scholarship costs around 480 CHF a year and we hope to set up a fund especially for this purpose while the school gets established. We had a useful meeting with the School management team, focusing on marketing, expanding school recruitment, and exploring cost-saving options, including reducing transport costs or even finding sponsorship for the school buses!
We met up with Gerd Schroder and Charlotte who are volunteering at the school, and we were all guests of honour at School Sports Day which – as is typical in India – went on rather longer than expected, with rather too many speeches. It ended only as the sun went down, with more celebrations and impromptu dancing. I was especially happy to meet up with Jacintha, the little girl who we filmed last year, and to meet some of the parents watching their children compete.
Finding a new family at the Friendship Home
On the same campus is the Friendship Home for children with HIV/Aids, started with support from FOI 10 years ago. There are now around 60 children at the home and it was a complete joy to see so many of them looking happy and well cared for. The majority have lost both parents to HIV and many have been rejected by other family members, so the home is vital for their very survival. The children showed us their refurbished dormitories, which are bright and clean but lack some basics like lockers to keep personal things, and mosquito screens on the windows. The computer room is also sadly lacking with outdated or non-functioning equipment. And there are other needs such as a wall round the home’s garden to increase security. We decided we would look into fundraising for these simple things which will make such a difference to the quality of life at the home.
In the evening we were treated to a concert of dance, song, and of course speeches. Some of the children spoke movingly about how the home has changed their lives. 16 year old Dharalakshmi described how after her parents both died, she found a new family at the Friendship Home. She told us she wants to become a lawyer and defend the rights of deprived people, if her health permits. It was great to see students Maria and Priya again, who have grown up at the home and are now going on to further education and training,
On our last day we went to see the print shop which makes notebooks and exercise books which are sold to schools in the area. Any profit goes towards the Friendship Home which is not completely self-supporting yet, but we hope is on its way.
So that was it! We said last year that we would reduce the scope of what we do – sometimes it doesn’t seem like it. But at least we are not taking on any new projects. Over the nearly 20 years since FOI started, we have got to know our partners on the ground, and have seen many of the children we help growing up and flourishing. It does not feel right to stop now, especially if we can give that little extra to help the projects to become self-sustaining, or make life a little more comfortable for children who have been cut a raw deal in life. We left with a long ‘wish-list’ but also with a sense that we are making a difference to many young lives.
If you would like to contribute to any of the projects we visited this year, please get in touch with us at email@example.com.
With warmest wishes,
Pam Walsh, Ted Talbot, Diana Smith and Jan Powell