I visited the New Life Centre (NLC) in West Bengal, travelling on 2 December and returning on 9 December, flying from Heathrow with Emirates via Dubai to Kolkata (Calcutta). The initial leg was my first experience of one of the new 10-seat wide, 750+ seater, double-decker Airbuses – a long trip but very comfortable even for my long legs!
Mr Alindra Naskar met me with his nephew at the airport and we drove to Sarberia, taking about 2 hours on a reasonable road alongside the many ponds and rivers in the Bay of Bengal area. The 5 ½ hours time difference certainly makes you jet-lagged...
The weather for the whole week was calm, warm, dry and spring-like. The food was lovely, varied and not a hint of Delhi belly thankfully! And just a few mozzies which were quite well behaved.
The school was looking good, classrooms clean and the children happy, well-behaved and alert. There are now over 340 of them aged from 3 up to 13+, from a start in 2007 of just 36. Largest classes are in the early years, with up to 68 children. They all attend mornings only and go home to eat at lunchtime. All are taught in Bengali medium but with English as one of the subjects.
This week all had exams, and were spread around the classrooms to stop the possibility of looking over anyone's shoulder – this was taken very seriously by all! Many of those who started in kindergarten in 2007 are now ready for secondary school, so this is Mr Naskar's new priority as the government provision is woefully unsatisfactory in quality (poorly resourced, badly controlled behaviour and with very unmotivated teachers). He would also like to develop their IT room and computer training, and develop a library.
Currently 24 children are sponsored through our HANDS AROUND THE WORLD sponsorship scheme 'Hand in Hand' and this makes a big difference to the school's running costs. Another 25 in 2014 would be much appreciated.
Here are brief stories about some of them:
NM who is sponsored is now nearly 14, having started late. His grandfather pushed for him to be accepted. He is the oldest of 4 siblings. 2 sisters have been taken out of school as they were deemed a low priority by the father who is generally not very supportive. He is a labourer shifting sand, often works in the city and does not much value education. NM is doing quite well, is capable of secondary education and training in a trade.
NK is also sponsored; she is aged 10 or 11, described as quiet and gentle, attentive and well disciplined, in class 5. She has a younger brother who dropped out of school. Father is an itinerant fishmonger, keen to encourage her in school where she is doing well. The family may not allow her to stay on to secondary school however.
AK is 13 and in standard 7, one of 4 siblings. All attend the NLC school. Her mother created quite a stir by having a sterilisation op without her husband’s consent, but they are now reconciled! Father is a very hard worker who used to repair car tyres, then bought a truck, since when the family's fortunes have much improved. All the children are doing well with mum's enthusiastic encouragement.
The vocational training of young women in sewing and embroidery continues as before, with about 10 students at a time for a course lasting several months, but it is quite flexible to allow for outside family commitments etc..
I donated an electric sewing machine given to HATW – the first most had ever seen.
We visited Suraya Bibi, one former student aged 28 who is now doing very well with her own small business (making mainly school uniforms and ladies clothes which she sells through her roadside shop) although sad to be childless. She was married at 13 and lived with her husband from 16. Her husband supported her in training against her parents' wishes, she then trained him, and he works there too. Their 2 sewing machines are kept busy for most of the year – up to 18 hours per day! She was very enthusiastic about the benefits to her of the NLC training. I asked Mr N to write her story in more detail for me.
Tess Molloy has been able recently to send 7000 Euros from her UN Women’s Group in Vienna to build new classrooms and a teenage girls refuge, and these works are well under way. Sadly the money only is sufficient for in-ground work (prepared for a 3 storey structure) and reinforced pillars, the total estimate being nearer 28000 Euros. When I asked from where this would come, Mr N's replied as usual: “God will provide...”
Dr Sreena Das (a past HATW volunteer and later a Trustee) was visiting her parents in Kolkata during my visit, and although sadly I didn't get to meet them, she had arranged for us to visit and talk to two of the city's Rotary Clubs. They were welcoming, and the experience very positive; the second one particularly showed much interest in members visiting the NLC and hopefully getting involved. There were many medics in this group and they were keen to embark on local rural health-care programmes (they are doing this already in the city and other areas) such as child malnutrition screening, eye clinics / surgery, cleft palate and hare lip clinics / surgery, assessment of children with disabilities – all ideas close to my heart as well as that of Mr Naskar. We are hoping to work up specific proposals for them shortly.
We talked a lot about self-sufficiency in the future, and income-generating ideas. On my last day there we had a 'Blue Sky Thinking' session based around this - all the teachers were asked anonymously to provide 2 written ideas which could bring funds into the school. We had a general chat afterwards and agreed the list would be posted on the wall, teachers asked to vote on their preferences, and the best ones would be evaluated and costed. I said HATW would be happy to help them develop these ideas, and as Tess, Lyn Helyer and others are visiting in February I am asking them to continue this discussion. (One of the most favoured ideas appeared to be Spoken English language classes out of hours – maybe as teachers, Tess and Lyn would be interested in launching this when they go?)
There were some duplicates, but for your interest I list the income-generating ideas proposed here:
Spoken English classes
English language film show
Sports coaching e.g. ping pong, judo
Evening IT classes for adults
Making and selling cakes to children once a month
Charging mobile phones
Drawing / art classes
Health Clinic with a doctor
School canteen / tuck shop
Technical training e.g. repairing mobile phones, computers
Increase school fees
Selling story books and toys
Approach wealthier people in the community
Sew garments for a monthly sale
Every evening coaching classes for years 5 to 10
Sell general knowledge and poetry books
Build a science lab for years 6 to 11
Sell saplings, plants
I asked Alindra to dream about the future. He would most like to develop the age range of students upwards, develop the IT room, introduce vocational training for the less academically able, and develop a health centre. He says the school could continue without outside support but would need to become more commercial i.e. it could only help children whose families could pay fees, (currently many are supported on a Robin Hood principle) and could not develop any new facilities.
A challenging but inspiring visit. Beautiful children and lovely people working hard. A well-organised school doing great things but needing more support. Good ideas planned for the future, with Mr Naskar's daughters all involved and keen to help development. Since I left, the school has had a positive inspection visit from the education department, which will formalise its position and acknowledge the quality which the school offers.
I do hope HATW can continue to work with them for the benefit of the many children we all seek to help.
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