Priya is a 5-year-old girl who lives on the Yamuna Floodplain. Her parents, like the majority of those living on the plain, have no skills other than farming. Priya lives with her parents, two brothers and two sisters. Nobody in the family has received any education, as the expectation is that they will join the family farming business. As soon as they are of age, they will learn to harvest vegetables, which their parents will sell in town. The closest school is over three kilometres away; over a dangerous road, and these children do not feature on the government radar so would be unable to join.
Priya loves to explore the local area and now knows the Yamuna well. When she discovered our centre, which at that time served only higher-level students, she began to come every day and watch the children from a distance. The children of the Yamuna, unlike those of the other centres, are served a full lunch that is generously donated by one of Project WHY’s sponsors. This allows us to provide the children with proper nutrition, and also frees their parents to spend the day on the farm. Priya would watch the secondary students get served every day with wide and envious eyes. Rajesh, a teacher at the centre, one day decided to bring her into the centre and offer her a meal, which she was delighted to accept.
Rajesh started talking to Priya and asked her if she would like to study. She explained that she knows only farming techniques, but she doesn’t enjoy such work and would like to be able to read and write. It was this conversation that inspired us to create the Yamuna primary programme, through which we now teach eighty-four students. Without birth certificates, these students rely on Project WHY for all of their education. We therefore run the centre as a full-time school, following closely the Government syllabus and giving the children the basic skills of literacy that they deserve. As for Priya, she now dreams of being a teacher, and in fact loves her studies so much that she tried to come to school on a Sunday!
At the time of this photo, in January 2009, Meher was three years old and lived in Khader, near the outskirts of New Delhi. Her father was a migrant worker who came to New Delhi to work part of the year, and her family spent the rest of the year in their village in Nepal.
When Meher was eight or nine months old, a mosquito net over her bed caught on fire. Miraculously, she survived the terrible burns, but the experience left her face and scalp badly scarred and her left hand permanently closed and deformed. Meher’s father is a daily wage labourer. Her family could not afford to seek additional treatment for her, although they were concerned about her future prospects in Indian society.
Meher had been enrolled in Project WHY from a young age. She is extremely bright, verbal, and social and had picked up a little English from her time at Khader. She interacts confidently with visitors from all over the world. When an American elementary school teacher, Nina Sethi, came to give our staff some training, she took an immediate liking to Meher. We explained to her the social issues that plague a girl with such burns in Indian society and Nina was keen to help. Whenever Nina would arrive to work with the teachers, Meher would greet her and help to oversee her English class. Nina describes an “immediate connection and a special bond,” and notes that she “recognised something in Meher: a great capacity for leadership and an amazing spirit.”
In January of 2009, Nina asked her friends and family and a non-profit organisation in the United States, Chess Without Borders, to help her raise enough money to cover the cost of reconstructive plastic surgery on Meher’s hand and face. This would have to include staying in the hospital, multiple operations, medicine, physical therapy, and much more. She was also keen to extend the fund to raise money for Meher’s education, as she is very intelligent and had had limited opportunities in her past.
The response that Nina received was overwhelming. Through her dedication and commitment, she was able to raise over $45,000 (USD), which was more than enough money for Meher’s surgeries and education, and is likely to last her until her higher education. Thankfully, her surgeries were completed successfully at a private hospital near her home.
Meher now attends Shanti Gyam International School in New Delhi with some other children she knows from Project WHY. She is flourishing and is consistently the top student in her class. Nina often visits her in New Delhi and enjoys speaking to Meher in English. Meher is now outgoing, confident and intelligent and loves Nina like family!
Project WHY opened its first spoken English class for secondary students in 2001 in Giri Nagar. It was the same time that Naresh had just completed his Bachelor’s degree in Arts and was looking for a job. He was a whizz mathematician and loved to teach, and to fulfill this passion he was giving tuitions to the neighborhood children, often for free. But in a poor home, one cannot afford to dream, for dreams do not put food on the table. Naresh tried his hand at various jobs, even as a vendor in a shoe shop, which just lasted two-days. His heart was not in it.
One day, in November 2001, a Class 10 student, Aadarsh, came to class with large welts on his arms. He had been brutally beaten in the government school he attended. Corporal punishment still prevails in many Indian schools despite a law against it. Project WHY resource persons visited the government school. The experience was Dickensian. The headmaster kept whirling the stick in his hand to make his point. The boy and other Project WHY students were humiliated. The boys were called guttersnipes and the Principal contemptuously informed us that these boys would never pass their Class 10 Board Examinations (a state level examination).
Project WHY took up the challenge of providing these boys with support to clear their Class 10 examination. With no funds, no space and no teacher to take this forward, Project WHY was in need of a miracle to get the bunch of lads ready for an exam in two short months.
A miracle came in the form of Naresh, who happened to be the elder brother of a teacher, Rani. He had just finished his degree and was looking for a job in the Giri Nagar area, where Project WHY had started. The only space available was the dusty pavement in front of our center and the only time available to tutor the students was between 7.30am to 9.30 am in the morning before they went to school. Every morning ten students assembled in front of the center, some mats were laid out and Naresh and his boys sat in a circle to study. The cold was kept at bay by cups of tea graciously offered by Naresh’s family.
That year, the challenge was won. The boys cleared their Class 10 examinations and this marked the beginning of Project WHY’s secondary outreach programme. Since then, Naresh has single-handedly ensured the success of hundreds of boys and girls who have successfully cleared their Board exams. The boy with the welts is now father of a little boy and all set to immigrate to Australia after having completed his higher education.
To Naresh, teaching a student is a mission he cannot fail. When exams approach, he schedules extra classes and teaches at the crack of dawn or late into the night. This is quite a feat for someone who likes a morning lie-in and a late session with his pals! On exam days, he is as nervous as his students, if not more, and waits for their return so he can find out how it all went. Come results day, his nails are bitten to the base as he scours the Internet, his students in tow.
Recently, when he went visited the Project Why Okhla Center and found out that the senior secondary students were in need of some extra tutoring, he rescheduled his timetable and took them under his wings. He never seeks extra compensation. Naresh often tells his students that he wishes there had been a Project WHY when he was growing up.