March 29, 2018
by andrea
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News from Tamil Nadu – FOI visit to India, 2018

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 info@friends-of-india.org.

With warmest wishes,

Pam Walsh, Ted Talbot, Diana Smith and Jan Powell

 

 

January 31, 2018
by andrea
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January 2018 Newsletter from FOI President Pam Walsh

Dear Friends,

As we begin a new year, I would like to thank you all wholeheartedly for your continued support for our work with the most marginalized and poor communities in south India.

We are very excited about our forthcoming visit to Tamil Nadu to review what has been achieved over the past year. I believe that one of the strengths of our organization is the way we have built up close relationships with our partners in India and the people and individuals we help on a daily basis. We shall be renewing that valuable contact in February and we will do our best to keep you up to date with the progress being made.

Help for Dalit girls

At the BCV International School we shall be meeting some of the Dalit children who have had scholarships thanks to your donations. Among them is 12-year-old Jacintha, whose family survives on less than 5 dollars a day. Without the FOI scholarship she would have no chance of an education or a way out of poverty. Our aim this year is to extend the scholarship fund to reach more marginalized and deprived Dalit girls.

Music for the blind

A generous collection from the wonderful Arquebuse Brass Band concert at the Victoria Hall last year has enabled us to buy new musical instruments for the Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind. Members of the Brass Band also donated instruments and we have just heard that we have been given a large container to transport them out to the School. If you have any unwanted musical instruments in good working order, please get in touch with us!

A new kitchen for tribal girls

Last year we were invited to the opening of a water purification system and a new classroom which we funded at a school for tribal children, high in the Jawadu Hills. These children are some of the most deprived and remain isolated from the outside world. At a home for tribal girls, we saw the state of their kitchen shown here! We agreed to try to find funding to renovate it, making it more hygienic as well as healthier for the cooks. We shall be visiting the home this year and hope to support the much-needed renovation.

A haven for HIV/Aids children

Our Friendship home continues to flourish. Children with learning difficulties are getting special help from the teacher we have sponsored since last year. Robert and his sister, shown in the photograph, are Aids orphans who were abandoned on the steps of the home two years ago. We are looking forward to seeing the progress they have made since we last saw them. We would like to fund another minibus for journeys to school and hospital for the home’s 60 children, as well as continuing to fund scholarships for further education for girls.

As we announced at our gala event in May 2017, we have replaced membership fees with a pledge system. We do rely on your pledges to help fund our projects – and this would ideally be through a regular monthly standing order. This would enable us to continue the work with the projects we are now focusing on as we move towards ensuring that they become self-sustaining.  May I take this opportunity of wishing you and your families a happy and peaceful new year.

With warmest wishes,

Pam Walsh, President, Friends of India 

Please donate to: CCP Account: 17-753012-7 or UBS Switzerland 1260 Nyon, Friends of India Account 240-439931.40D, IBAN CH68 0024 0240 4399 3140 D

January 15, 2018
by andrea
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Penfriends finally meet in Kovalam, South India!

Friends of India has received some lovely news of a student from the Geneva English School who has been visiting Kovalam and is currently spending a few days teaching at the BCV International School.

Pam Walsh, FOI President:

In the year 2000, Zara Plummer was a schoolgirl at the Geneva English  School. I was invited to give a talk about our work helping children – especially girls – to access education in South India. We had decided to build a multi-purpose centre in Kovalam, south of Chennai and thanks to Zara and her classmates (who ran a marathon around the school ) we raised CHF 12’000. We set up the GES Multipurpose Training Centre in 2001. Children from villages all around assemble every day after school for supervised homework and a snack. 17 years later, Zara is in India, teaching environmental studies to primary and secondary school children in another of our projects, the BCV International School in Tirunelveli. Zara and Keerthana, who was the first little girl we helped in Kovalam, became pen friends and they have just met for the first time!!

After 18 years as penfriends, Zara and Keerthana meet for the first time at Chennai airport.

Zara Plummer:

Pam visited my primary school when I was 7 years old and set up an initiative to send school supplies and raise funds for a multipurpose room in Kovalam. After sending a pencil case with basic school supplies and a little letter about myself, I received a response from a very grateful girl, Keerthana, who was around my age. We began to write to each other and exchange little pieces of information about our lives, giving each other insights into different cultures and unknown places. Being interested in geography and travel, this always interested me and we kept in touch first through letters, then emails and now Facebook and other social media. I feel like I have been a part of Keerthana‘s life and watched as her English progressed and she no longer needed to use a translator to communicate with me. I even remember one birthday, when I was perhaps 10 years old, I received a call from her and we talked like old friends.

Finally, 17 years later, we have met. It was the most incredible experience to step off a plane at Chennai airport and be met by Keerthana and her mother (who had diligently woken up at 5am to make sure I didn’t get lost somewhere between the airport and their home). I spent 3 wonderful days with her and her family, during which she showed me around her village as well as nearby Chennai and other places that were important to her. On the evening of my second day, which had been spent visiting Keerthana‘s secondary school and temple and playing games on the beach with her family, we walked home and stopped off at the multipurpose room built back in 2001. The experience was surreal and it was amazing to see a new generation of children completing their homework, talking and playing in the building 16 years later!

After some very emotional goodbyes and an infinite number of promises to return as soon as possible, I moved on to Tirunelveli where FOI has helped to establish the BCV International School.

Zara is able to spend a few days at the BCV International School, working with primary children, teaching care for the environment as well as English classes.

Here I am helping younger children with reading and pronunciation as well as teaching classes on geography, economics, and environmental stewardship (encouraging the children to care for the environment and consider the impact of their actions on the world). The school has just opened a new building and it is wonderful to see that it is already growing to fit the new space. I am also hoping to identify further needs of the school so that myself and FOI can improve facilities and further encourage its expansion.”

Zara celebrates ‘pongal’, a local harvest festival, with children from the BCV International school. Rice, cereals, sugarcane and turmeric are cooked in a new earthenware pot until the mixture overflows – a symbol of abundance.

November 6, 2017
by andrea
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A Star Performance in aid of the Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind

As the opening notes of the Diamond Jubilee rang through the magnificent Victoria Hall in Geneva, we knew we were in for a special evening. This was no town hall ‘oompa’ brass band, this was the Geneva Arquebuse Brass Band under the expert direction of Jean Pierre Chevailler. The atmosphere in the hall warmed and the applause lengthened for each number, almost lifting the roof for the virtuoso performance of Variations sur Carnaval de Venise by trumpet soloist Francois Seigneur

The highpoint of the evening, however, was the guest appearance of soprano Marie-Najma Thomas, now studying at the Geneva Haute Ecole de Musique. Indian by birth, Marie-Najma was adopted from a Bombay orphanage when she was three years old by a French family and discovered her gift for music at a very early age. We invited her to visit the Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind in Arni, Tamil Nadu in January this year, her very first visit to India since she left as a toddler. As she explained to the audience, she was able to introduce the children to western music, and experienced the smells and sounds of India for the first time that she could remember. It was a very special and poignant moment when she performed at the Victoria Hall, to raise funds for that same music school.

The audience was genuinely moved by Marie-Najma’s rendition of Mozart’s Hallelujah, as indeed was the band. Director Jean Pierre Chevailler commented that it was the first time the Arquebuse Band had performed with a singer who had no need of a microphone. In a very unusual move, he invited her to sing again – to the delight of the audience.

The evening was skilfully compered by Jenny Klein, who introduced Pam Walsh to explain the work of Friends of India and the needs of the Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind. Despite competition from the fabulous autumn sunshine, the audience had turned out in force. When FOI Treasurer Ted Talbot took to the stage, he was thrilled to announce that the collection had gone beyond all expectations, with 9,400 CHF donated – not just enough to pay for much-needed musical instruments and a sound system, but also to go some way to funding a school bus to take the children to concerts and other events.   Further donations have reached just over 10,000 CHF, a fantastic achievement. Enormous thanks are due to all of you who contributed.

It goes without saying that we are extremely grateful to the wonderful Geneva Arquebuse Brass Band and the Victoria Hall for choosing Friends of India as their ‘good cause’ this year. And of course to all of you who came along to enjoy the evening and reached in your pockets to support some of the most vulnerable children in Tamil Nadu. We will be bringing you updates on how the money is spent and some reactions from children and staff at the Music School in due course. Once again – Thank you!

September 11, 2017
by andrea
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Brass Band Concert to raise funds for The Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind

The brilliant Arquebuse Brass Band of Geneva, one of the most acclaimed brass bands in Switzerland, will be giving a concert on Sunday 15th October 2017 at the Victoria Hall in Geneva. The entrance will be free, with a collection for the Richard Walsh Music School for blind children in Tamil Nadu, South India.

The concert will be from 17h00 to 19h00 and promises to be a spectacular event, with quite a few musical surprises!

Seats will be reserved if you register before 30th September – info@friends-of-india.org, so please note the date in your diaries!

India has one of the highest rates of childhood blindness in the world.  Visually impaired children thrive with specialist education and support but there are not enough places for the children who need that help.  In 2009, Friends of India built an extension to a school for blind and partially sighted children to provide specialist music education.  Eight years later, what started as an extra-curricular activity for a few students, has become an integral part of the school, enabling hundreds of visually impaired children to discover, experience and explore the universal world of music.

The music school, which is named after Richard Walsh, late husband of Friends of India’s founder, Pam Walsh, now needs more instruments, a proper audio system and a bus to transport students to concerts and events.   Please help us raise money to spread the joy of music to children in need in a small corner of Tamil Nadu, south India.

We look forward to seeing you on the 15th October!

 

May 17, 2017
by andrea
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New Pledge Scheme announced at our Coming of Age party

 

Nearly 100 friends and supporters gathered together to celebrate our 18th Birthday  in Geneva on 13th May.

FOI President Pam Walsh and Board members cutting the birthday cake!

At the party, which immediately followed our AGM, some changes and a new pledge scheme were announced. Here is an extract from Ted Talbot‘s speech given on the evening:

“Dear Members and Friends of Friends of India,

I want to share with you all a decision that has been taken at our 2017 AGM – that we are streamlining, simplifying and modernizing the FOI organisation:

Streamlining – which means that we are not looking to take on any new projects outside of our four chosen areas of support which are:

  • giving Dalit children access to education;
  • giving love and a new life to HIV AIDS orphans;
  • giving a new dimension of music to the lives of blind children;
  • giving women skills so they can earn a salary to help feed, clothe and educate their children.

Simplifying – which means we are changing our approach to membership and fundraising

Modernizing – which means we are going to use social media as much as possible for communication.

We want all of you, our supporters, to be united with us, as members of the FOI family, in what we strive to achieve – but without the formality of a membership fee. Why have members been paying a fee and getting no special benefit for it? We have money in our operational support budget and so we have set the current membership fee at zero francs. Instead, anyone who gives money to FOI is automatically a member and (if Swiss residents) can deduct their donation for tax purposes.

So how do we intend raising money to continue to support our key projects? We would still like you to suggest a gift to FOI instead of flowers at a memorial or a Christmas/birthday present, BUT we are asking every one of you to pledge your support for what we are doing by pledging a sum of money – large or small, to show solidarity with us and enable us in turn to pledge with confidence, our support for the requested needs of our implementing partners.

We are asking you to pledge your support now – by filling out the FOI Pledge Form and sending it to me, Ted Talbot, as shown on the form. Your pledge remains totally confidential and may be cancelled at any time.”

Ted Talbot, FOI Treasurer

At the celebration party on May 13, we received pledges for Chf. 12’500. Thank you!

April 28, 2017
by andrea
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Trip of a lifetime for a blind music student to the Richard Walsh Music School

When FOI President Pam Walsh met Marie-Najma Thomas in Geneva last year, it wasn’t long before she came up with a new idea. She wanted to take Marie-Najma on the trip of a lifetime, to visit the Richard Walsh Music School for blind children near Vellore, South India.

The reasons? Marie-Najma is herself blind, studying for her Masters degree in Baroque music at the Geneva Conservatoire. She was adopted as a three-year-old toddler, abandoned in an orphanage in Mumbai, and has grown up in northern France, far from her birth country.

Marie-Najma knew that going back to India would be a powerful and emotional experience but she quickly felt at home in the heat and sunshine, and with the new spicy tastes and smells. It was also the first time she had taught young children, so there were challenges too as she introduced them to the unfamiliar sounds of western music. Marie Najma Thomas shares her impressions of this very special visit:

“Thanks to Friends of India I was lucky enough to spend several days teaching western music to a group of blind Indian children at the Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind. It really was an unforgettable and unique experience for me.

At first I found the social and cultural differences striking and I have to admit a bit overwhelming for me. However, the welcome that I received from the Brothers who run the school was really so warm and generous I soon settled in. They really were extremely attentive and caring to me throughout the week I spent with them.

The welcome I got from the children was also absolutely wonderful and completely unexpected. During my stay I was able to work with the children, getting to know them a little, and finding out how best to teach them so that they could learn and retain the music we worked on together. At first it was quite tricky to develop a contact with them, particularly because of the language barrier. But gradually our understanding of each other grew and the children learned faster and faster. We practised four English songs (Silent Night, Do Ré Me from the Sound of Music, Yellow Submarine and Frère Jacques) and with lots of rehearsal and patience they were able to perform some really interesting work, specially considering that they were completely unused to western music.

An outstanding student at the Richard Walsh Music School for Blind Children is presented with a prize by Marie-Najma Thomas, Pam Walsh and Ted Talbot

It was a great joy for me to share so much more than just music with them, and it was this that helped to make my visit to the school such an enriching experience.”

Marie-Najma Thomas, Geneva

April 14, 2017
by mayomayhem
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Friends of India – A Celebration

Friends of India – a Celebration

Saturday 13th May 2017 at the Crowne Plaza, Geneva

Aperitifs at 19h00, followed by a delicious Indian meal, including wine, water and coffee.  There will be live entertainment with music from the 60s to present time, so don’t forget your dancing shoes!

The all-inclusive cost of the evening is CHF110 per person.  Should you wish to make up a table of 8 or sit with a couple of friends, please add their names to your reservation.

Please reserve by Friday 21st April by sending an email to info@friends-of-india.org, attention Clare, and make your payment by Friday 28th April to our Post Office Account:   CCP 17-753012-7 – Friends of India – chemin de la Combe 28, 1260 NYON Please add  “FOI Celebration”  in the relevant box.
We very much look forward to sharing and celebrating with you.

Dress code:  Smart, with a touch of India if you wish.

(This event will be preceded by our AGM)

 

March 6, 2017
by andrea
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Diana Smith reports on her recent visit to the BCV International School

Diana Smith, Vice President of Friends of India has recently returned from India after spending just under two weeks at the BCV International School in Tirunelveli, teacher-training and working with groups of students. Here she gives her report:

It has been two years since I last visited the school in Tirunelveli and it has grown in that time from a small school with less than twenty children, to a full school with more than 220 children.   In June 2017, there could be up to 350 children when the new school year starts.

My first impression was a feeling that it is a really happy school, the children are truly delighted to be there and are working so hard to succeed. I saw very little worrying behaviour while I was there, just respect for each other and the adults around them. In spite of their different backgrounds, all students seem fully integrated. I felt very welcome in all classrooms and communal areas at all times.

The building is beginning to show signs of wear and tear- cracks have appeared and the paintwork needs a fresh coat of paint. But the team of janitors are constantly cleaning, washing the floors and generally keeping the school tidy. Most teachers have colourful posters around their rooms, but there are very few display boards, which are badly needed on which to display students’ work.

On the Friday evening of the first week, the school held its Annual Day celebrations – a spectacular display of singing, dancing, drama, karate, yoga and other extra-curricular activities. It was a brilliant, fast-moving, colourful presentation, showcasing the many creative talents of all the students in the school.

During my time in the school, I was able to observe all the teachers during at least one full lesson, giving immediate feedback and making suggestions that were followed up during later lessons. I saw many examples of excellent teaching: lively question and answer sessions in different subject areas; the use of sophisticated vocabulary; the use of visual aids; creative mathematics and language lessons; and teaching in small groups, encouraging the students to work collaboratively.

To have the best access to all the teachers I held a staff meeting each day I was there – sharing good practice and allowing the teachers to plan and work together. We set up a calendar of staff meetings until the end of the school year, which will help the teachers become more comfortable at working more closely as a team.

When I realised the Library was not being used by the students, we cleared it and created two great spaces, one for the younger children and a study area for the older students. I was able to spend time in the library, reading to several classes and I was delighted to hear that since we returned to Geneva, the library is being used every day by all classes.

Following all my observations I made these recommendations:

  • All classrooms need internet access. At the moment only the main office has internet and even that is erratic
  • To attract new families, the building needs freshening up with a coat of paint
  • All classrooms need display boards to display students’ work and teacher resources
  • There is a photocopier in the main office which should be made available to teaching staff
  • Regular staff meetings are crucial for team building and collaborative planning. The present calendar of meetings should help and then continue into the new school year

I realise that many of my recommendations have budget implications, which may be difficult. But as the school becomes more financially independent there will be more money available for these basic needs.

It was a great pleasure to have Ms Maggie Sutton with me throughout the visit, also observing in classrooms and working with the teachers. Her help and contributions to our work was invaluable. I would like to thank Br, Ravi, Madam Selva, Br. Christu and all the staff for making us so welcome and giving us the opportunity to work throughout the school.I am already looking forward to my next visit!

Diana Smith

February 13, 2017
by andrea
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Ted reports on the FOI Board’s 2017 India trip

On his recent visit to Tamil Nadu, Friends of India treasurer Ted Talbot found out first hand what it’s like to go fishing in Kovolam on the Bay of BengalFriends of India has helped the fishermen and their families who suffered badly after the 2004 tsunami, and more recently when a cyclone hit the coast last December. To find out more about Ted’s visit, read his report below…

 

“After a few days of ‘loin girding’ at an Ayurvedic beach resort in Kerala, Pam Walsh, Jan Powell, Clare Schenker and I headed to Tirunelveli, and to the BCV International School.

There we met up with Di Smith, Maggie Sutton and UK based photographer Terry Knight (shooting footage for our crowd-funding appeal for a dalit girls hostel attached to the BCV International school). Can you imagine – it rained! But it didn’t dampen the excellence, fun and marathon length (4 hours) of the Holy Angels BCV International school anniversary celebrations. The kids and costumes were brilliant. There is a real buzz around the school which now has 200 students of which 60 are there on scholarships, i.e. Dalit.

Every class performed a riot of colour and sound for the BCV School anniversary celebration

During our stay, Di, Maggie and Pam concentrated on the teachers and teaching methods, Jan and Terry on filming and photography with Clare their ‘gaffer’, while I went through the accounts for the school with Br. Ravi and particularly looked at the forecasts to see when the school would become self-sustaining. In the school year 2017/18, which runs from May to March, there will be an intake of 150 new students of which 100 will be on scholarships. The existing building will already become too small. To cope with this it has been decided to convert another nearby building into the primary section. FOI are financing this transformation thanks to a very generous donor. The projections show that fees earned should cover teaching and general running costs, but transport is costing a net CHF 13,500 a year, despite charging fee-paying kids for the services.

On the BCV school bus

FOI are going to try and get a bus donated and may I encourage our supporters to give to our scholarship fund – CHF 500 covers one year’s schooling. Our other initiative is to raise money for a girls hostel which will not only relieve pressure on transport costs and travel time (some 4 year olds are spending 1.5 hours getting to school) but provide an environment for help with homework and to promote equality. It will also enable more dalit girls to attend school – an important objective of the BCV School.   Watch out for our crowd funding appeal for the Dalit Girls Hostel!

The Friendship Home for HIV/AIDS orphans

Pam and four-year old Robert at the Friendship Home

On the same campus is the Friendship Home – a hostel for over 40 orphans living with HIV/AIDS. What a joy to see these children again; see how they are nourished and growing up in a loving environment. One of the girls has now married, another two are at technical college and one boy is working as an apprentice at the Brothers’ print shop. Sadly little Robert (admitted 2 years ago aged 2.5 with his 4 year old sister) has not developed and 2 or 3 other children are also mentally challenged. FOI have a special fund from which we pay the salary of a specialist teacher (CHF 1’500 p.a.) as well as the college fees for the 2 girls (CHF 600 p.a. each) and the cost of an annual outing (CHF 300). Thank you to FOI donors whose monthly donation has enabled us to meet these special needs, but more contributors would be very welcome.

Maria and Priya are now studying at a local technical college

The running costs of the Friendship home should all be financed by a book-binding operation (paid for by FOI in 2015) but which has been slow to get going. I spent time with the new manager and Br. Ravi checking the accounts and discussing the future. They have good plans and I am hopeful that the Friendship Home will be fully funded from book-binding and printing activities by the end of 2017, thus relieving the Brothers of a financial burden. They told us of 3 other needs: a playground – which is already funded thanks to Ecole Moser Geneva; a compound wall and fencing as a protection against animals and snakes more than humans – cost CHF 12’000; paving in front of the buildings where there is just earth and flooding when it rains (which it did while we were there!!) – cost CHF 10’000. Help towards last 2 items would be much appreciated.

We had a very rewarding visit and are totally satisfied that your money has been well spent and ‘our’ children are in good hands. Superior General Br. Victordas is as friendly, charismatic and hardworking as ever. It was hard to leave, but after a week, Terry headed for home, Pam, Jan, Clare and I headed north to Madurai while Di and Maggie stayed on for another week of training for the teachers. Di would love to hear from any other teachers willing to continue the much needed help with passing on language and pedagogical skills!

The Chris Powell Training Centre

Madurai is where Dr. Amirtham Ammu runs the Chris Powell Training Centre, providing tailoring and computer skills courses so poor women can learn a trade and get a job or work as independents. It is a small operation on the edge of the city in a building bought by Amirtham who is dynamic and dedicated. The operation is now largely self-financing as Amirtham charges 300 rupees (5 CHF) for the three-month tailoring course, which the women pay once they are able to use their new-found skills. Making clothing for local shops, they can earn 300 rupees a day which adds greatly to family income, and gives the women confidence and a small level of independence. Jan would like to raise some funds to replace some of the well used equipment and to employ a full-time trainer.

20 women learn and earn in the supportive atmosphere of the Chris Powell Training Centre in Madurai.

From Madurai we continued North to Arani home of the SUEB (society for the upliftment of the economically backward) and the Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind. I had decided we should go by train, not only because it was the most direct way of getting there, but because I love Indian trains and wanted Jan and Clare to share the experience. Well! It was an experience all right! Loaded with 11 pieces of luggage we arrived at the station at midday to find the train was running 3 hours late! When we finally climbed aboard, my previous experiences of a nice air conditioned compartment to ourselves was shattered by the discovery that because it was very crowded, we had separate seats in 2 separate coaches and only top bunks for we oldies! Ted was not popular!! However, we survived and finally arrived at 5.00 am (another 2 hours late) to be met by Br Leveil and team who had been on the platform since 1.00 am!!

Richard Walsh Music School for the Blind

Marie-Najma Thomas with a group of blind students at the Richard Walsh School for the Blind

Priscilla Daniels, director of the SUEB had kindly lent us her house (she was on her way to New Zealand) and so we crashed out for most of the day until Marie-Najma Thomas arrived. She is a blind Indian orphan born in Mumbai, raised in France, studying music in Geneva and Pam had the wonderful idea of bringing her to India to spend a week teaching the blind students at the Richard Walsh Music School. The poor girl was nervous, understandably, as this was her first visit to India since she left at the age of three. But as the week progressed, she found her confidence and gave the Tamil-speaking children a taste of western music, including Silent Night, Doh Rey Me from the Sound of Music, Yellow Submarine and Frère Jacque. What a wonderful experience for her and her blind students!

Once again we were treated like royalty with flowers, shawls, 2 hour ceremonies, too much wonderful food and waited on hand and foot by Br. Babbu, Leveil, James etc. These Brothers are just so attentive to peoples’ needs, wonderful with the children and to watch them at work is very humbling. It was a great pleasure to use money from the FOI exceptional talent fund to buy a personal PA system for 2 girls with lovely voices and a keyboard for a boy with exceptional talent. Thank you FOI donors and it would be great to have more people contributing to this fund.

School for Tribal Children

One day during our stay we headed into the Javadi hills to visit a large school for 1’200 Tribal Children run by Br. Muttu. A few months ago we paid for a water purification plant and desks and benches for the boys. We have already worked with the tribals, providing solar lamps and 2 years ago I climbed to a couple of their villages and so it was with excitement we headed into these wonderful almost alpine mountains full of fruit and wild spices such as tamarin. What a climate to retire to! On arrival we were given a royal welcome with a loud band, dots on forehead (bindis), strewing of rose petals and after consecrating the purification plant, shawls and treated to a concert in front of all 1’200 smartly uniformed, well behaved students sitting crossed legged on the ground – very impressive. Lunch and then what? … yes, another concert and blessing of the desks!! Afterwards we visited the boys and the girls hostels and were appalled at the smoke filled kitchens. There is definitely a need for another smokeless stove and we are awaiting a proposal.

Next day it was already time to say our farewells. It is always hard to leave the children, their teachers and carers who over these many years have become very good friends as well as implementers of our projects. It was also with a little trepidation we left Marie-Najma on her own to complete her week of teaching.

SUEB Community Centre

Before heading for Chennai, we visited the SUEB Community Centre and met the local director and women from the local self-help groups, hearing first hand from two of the women how they had learned a trade and were now earning money for their families. FOI have helped the SUEB over at least 15 years, but it now runs on its own and we can be proud of the building we provided, the trainers we have supported and the close friendship and respect we have for Priscilla who founded the SUEB and has built it up over many years.

Kovolam Community Centre

And so to Chennai and I must say it was like shaking the snow off one’s boots and stepping inside a warm chalet, to step into the cool marbled foyer of the Taj hotel – despite our driver spending 45 minutes cruising around looking for it!! A day of lounging and then a final visit – a trip down the coast to Kovalam to meet Naryanan of the CARDT (Coastal and Rural Development Trust) and walk around the centre built with funds collected by the children of the Geneva English school back in 2002! We went to the beach and tried to spot the 3 boats paid for by FOI after the tsunami and 2 of us went fishing! Kovalam is becoming a popular location and we are frustrated that the GES building is under-utilised. We have a challenge on our hands to get something moving here, so watch this space as they say. On our final day we visited our good friend and ex-FOI Board member Nigel Majakari and his family. His enterprise Chilasa is doing wonderful work amongst the rural carpenters of Tamil Nadu. Their beautiful furniture is now available to buy online www.calyah.com.

So that’s it! A wide-reaching tour of many projects but with just a few very specific objectives before us.”

Ted Talbot