Each year for the past five years, I have looked forward to the week-long leadership trip. During the week, we visit AIF projects and partners on the ground in India to witness first hand the impact we are having and to gain a better appreciation for the challenges and opportunities in front of us. Raj Sharma and I represented the New England Chapter this year.
Here are some impressions from this year’s trip. I hope I am able to relay a bit of the sounds, scenes and lives we touched through this email.
Snehalakshmi, the hopeful 6th grader with a brilliant smile
DE Center, DTEA School, Moti Bagh, Delhi
We were welcomed by Snehalakshmi, a 6th grader whose father is a three wheeler driver and whose mother works as domestic help. Her infectious smile stretched across her face as she and her classmates ushered us into the school. Sneha and other students learn to leverage computers in their learning across many subjects through Digital Equalizer. Students demonstrated their proficiency with PCs and the digital world with songs they had composed. The students eagerly look forward to their time at the computer lab. They are proud to show off their creativity and knowledge through a variety of computer-aided learning projects.
This school serves domestic workers, rickshaw drivers, et al from the local area (Lakshmibai Nagar, Moti Bagh). AIF is also trying the Dell Connected Classroom initiative in this school.
Roma Rokha, the indefatigable, inspirational leader
The Noida Deaf Society, Noida
The center we visited trains its students in Information Technology (IT) and other skills, and works with local employers to place them in jobs. Face-to-face with a class full of deaf people from the poorer sections of the society who can’t speak or hear you, my appreciation of their helplessness grew exponentially. I was amazed to see the resolve in them to beat the odds they have been dealt and become gainfully employed. Executive Director Roma Rokha is an incredibly inspirational individual. The passion of Roma and her assistant Preeti is infectious and touching - both women are completely devoted to their cause.
Navghan Bhai, the proud graduate of a LAMP Hostel
LAMP Hostel, Gujarat
Navghan is a proud graduate of a Learning and Migration Program (LAMP) hostel who has now graduated from the 10th grade and aspires to graduate from high school and go on to college. Navghan’s parents, like thousands of others, work in the salt pans. Navghan described how his parents had no choice but to take him out of school and take him along with them to the salt pans. It was heart wrenching to hear Navghan talk about working all day in the salt pans in scorching heat with no shade.
Because of AIF’s intervention and the LAMP hostel, Navghan was able to stay in school, graduate, and is now himself a Supervisor at the same LAMP hostel. The whole village is proud of him and he has become a role model to other youth. You could see the determination in Navghan’s eyes as he described how he hopes to help many others stay in school and get an education.
Rickshaw pullers and their families
Shemri village, Agra
It was heartening to see the impact we are having on these very poor families. There was palpable excitement as we met with the villagers. We also learned something interesting. The women asked us, “why only rickshaws”? They pointed out that thelas (push carts) would also allow women to be employed – something for AIF to ponder. Can we expand ‘asset acquisition’ from rickshaws to thelas?
Shanno, the brave coordinator and Shaina, the confident role model graduate
Vatsalya Market Aligned Skills Training (MAST) Center, Ramganj, Jaipur
For me, the visit to Ramganj was the capstone experience of the trip. Ramganj is a very poor neighborhood in Jaipur. You can’t drive there – you have to get there by ‘tuk tuk’ (a 3-wheeler). We drove through really tough roads and conditions to get to the Center. We were greeted by Jaya Mala and Ritesh Gupta (Vatsalya founders). Both are UNC grads who have returned to India to do social development work. This is AIF’s MAST program at work and very successfully so.
The Center at Ramganj trains students from the neighborhood in sewing, IT and jewelry making. To give you some perspective, this neighborhood happens to be a muslim dominated area and a very conservative one. Families here have deep belief in their faith. Women generally do not leave their homes.
We met with the students and families at the terrace after interacting with them in their classrooms. I met Shanno, who is from a very respected, religious family in the neighborhood and Archana, a wonderful, highly energetic individual. Both Shanno and Archana have been instrumental in developing a deep sense of trust between the families and the Center. Because of their persistent encouragement, the families have started allowing their wives, sister, and daughters to come out of their homes and attend courses at the Center.
They worked with community leaders and assured them that their religious beliefs need not be compromised. The objective of the Center was to give them skills so they can get employed even from home. The transformation in the lives of the students and families has been remarkable.
It was really touching to hear Shanno speak about how women overcame the objections of the community and gained their trust. She said once she was convinced and stepped out, it became easier for others to follow. It was impressive to hear Shaina speak with confidence and pride about her journey, overcoming objections at home and now earning a significant salary. She has already been promoted at her job.
AIF Clinton Fellows at the midpoint of their 10 month journey
Finally, we met all our Fellows and heard stories about their backgrounds as well as their experiences on the ground. These are some remarkable young people – their experiences are life changing and invaluable, and they bring a wealth of perspective to their respective projects and NGOs.
Each year, the much-anticipated trip seems to whiz past and before I know it, is over. It is an intense week, both emotionally and physically. I know all the people on the trip have similar feelings – lumps in their throats, tears in their eyes, and joy in their hearts as they see the gratitude in the eyes of our beneficiaries. All come away humbled by the enormity of the task at hand and determined to do more.
View more photos from the trip below