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Archive for September, 2011

New Leaders, New Connections and New Friends

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

By Pam Prather

What’s more exciting than accomplishing an important project?

Sharing the story with friends!

Pam and Murali Girl Scout Presentation Murali and I joined the Girl Scouts ‘Around the World in 5 Days’ Camp a few weeks ago, to talk about our solar energy project for the Anjana School in India.  These bright, energetic young women were attending a day camp with an international service theme.  Their leaders invited us to share our experience of helping this school purchase and install solar panels to help address their electricity issues.  This project enabled the school to start a computer lab and have classroom lighting, which would not have been possible otherwise.

The Girl Scouts not only wanted to hear about our work, they wanted to get involved, too! They collected books, and donated educational software programs.  Most importantly, with our help, they’ve started a Pen Pal program with the school children in India.  This is what Friends Unite is all about – bringing about lasting change in people’s lives through the power of ‘intentional unity.’

Girl Scouts Books Collected

We are into the last phase (Phase 3) of the project, and have only $1800 to go in order to fulfill the project cost to SELCO Solar India, the company we’ve partnered with to handle the solar installation.  If you are interested in donating, getting involved or learning more about Friends Unite, checkout our website!

The Anjana School Project: Part 7 – What is Your Rate of Return?

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

By Murali Bashyam

Part 7 of 7 – What is Your Rate of Return?

When Dr. Channa Raju asked the school children to raise their hands if they would rather work on the computers versus taking a break, every single child immediately raised their hands…enthusiastically.

Anjana School Child Raising Hand Our trip was a very memorable one.  Two of the many memories I will never forget revolve around two words – 1) enthusiasm and 2) connection.  I saw the enthusiasm in the children when Channa asked them to raise their hands if they would rather continue working on the computers or take a recess.  Every single child in the room immediately raised their hands.  It was an enthusiastic and instinctive response by them.  One immediately followed by their smiles when Channa told them ‘okay.’

The other was the connection a group of four girls made with my wife.  These girls, sitting by the computer in the far corner of the room, showed Cheryl what they created and learned on the computer.  She stood behind them.  After a few minutes, I heard laughter coming from that corner.  I turned around and saw Cheryl sitting with them.  She tells me that the girls asked her to sit with them.  They were all working on the computer together, laughing, connecting and learning.

As I stood there watching these excited children using their computers to learn new things, and the adults helping them and teaching them the valuable message that they are the change-makers who can improve the lives of others, I thought about how nonprofits and their partners strive to measure the effectiveness of the work that they do.  Or, in business jargon, how do you measure the rate of return?

If a picture really speaks louder than a thousand words, I think these pictures clearly provide the answer.

Anjana School Children Using Computers to Learn

Anjana School Girls Really Interested in Learning

Cheryl told me recently that it’s more important for nonprofits to measure accountability than effectiveness.   She might be right.  Sometimes it is difficult to measure ‘effectiveness’ – there are so many variables involved with an infinite amount of time within which to measure them.

This is the complexity of nonprofit work, especially when you think of it in business terms, as I tend to do.

By focusing on accountability, self-sustainability, and fostering long-term relationships, perhaps effectiveness will automatically fall into place.  And sometimes, it might be well after our lifetimes.

Whether an organization is directly involved in creating global change, and regardless of the methods it uses, the world is also changing on its own.   And that change is primarily driven by business, connections and technology.

I remember Channa and I explaining the message of Friends Unite to the children, that “no man is a failure who has friends.”  What they see and what they have is through the hard work and collaboration of many old friends and new friends, and many for-profit and non-profit enterprises.

We told the children that they should work together to solve India’s problems.  After watching those children that afternoon, I have no doubt that they will.

The Anjana School Project: Part 6 – The New Leaders

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

By Murali Bashyam

Part 6 of 7 – The New Leaders

Channa told the children that if there is a problem that needed to be solved, don’t wait for the Government to do it, to collaborate, work hard and solve the problem themselves!

My wife and I are at the school in India.  We are with Channa, his wife Uma, Ananth from SELCO, and Naveen from MAINTEC.  Also present is the individual who originally donated the land upon which the school is built, as well as one of Channa’s former mentors.  We had seen the school, met with some students, did the Hokey Pokey with them, and just finished climbing to the roof of the school to see the solar panels, all bearing the red SELCO emblem.

Even though we had yet to complete our fundraising for this effort, Harish told me to let the money take its time.  He said it was the least important thing anyway, and SELCO went ahead with the solar installation.  The computer lab now had consistent power, the children were using it to learn, and that’s where we were all headed next, to a dedication ceremony at the lab.

Computer Lab Dedication

As we walked into the lab, I thought about how many people and organizations it took to make this happen. In fact, when Channa showed me the dedication poster that only listed Friends Unite’s name, I told him that all parties should have been acknowledged.  From the land to the building to the donated computers to the computer desks to the supplies to the software to the electricity, it took the collaboration and dedication of many individuals, donors, for-profit and non-profit businesses to make this work.  And the result of these efforts is a very impressive–looking computer lab for a group of excited children at a small school in rural India.

The dedication ceremony began with a song by the children, followed by an excellent speech by Channa.  He told the children that through collaboration, they can achieve anything. For countries like India, where one of the biggest problems is Government corruption that results in various inefficiencies, this powerful message to children will hopefully lead to real change.

After Channa’s speech, it was time to hit the ‘power’ button on the computers in the lab.  The children went to the computers, turned them on and showed us what they had already done.  Many had put together Powerpoint presentations on various topics ranging from biology to aerospace to animals to the environment.   Not only did the children create the presentations, they used it as a learning tool to memorize facts about these subjects.  I could tell there was a thirst for knowledge, one that will only increase over time.

Click HERE to read Part 7 – What is Your Rate of Return?

The Anjana School Project: Part 5 – Partnering with SELCO Solar India

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

By Murali Bashyam

Part 5 of 7 – Partnering with SELCO Solar India

I asked him a simple question, “Should we do it?”  And he provided a simple response, “Yes, we should.”

After speaking with the first company, we decided to get a second bid on the project.  That led us to Harish Hande, Managing Director of SELCO Solar India.  Harish is an internationally recognized expert in this field. In speaking with Harish, he clearly knew the nuances of solar technologies.  However, what set Harish apart from the rest was his in-depth knowledge of how to efficiently use solar technology in poor and rural communities.  To Harish, using solar technology or selling us a product was secondary to creating the best holistic approach to helping this community, with solar energy being a part of it.

Harish’s team at SELCO Solar visited the school to determine whether solar energy would be viable option.  After analyzing the site, SELCO provided a solution, as well as the cost for making it happen.  It is important to point out that SELCO Solar is a for-profit, social enterprise.  I liked the idea of involving an Indian for-profit company in the partnership.  It added an additional measure of accountability.  SELCO has a vested interest to make sure everything works.  And, as a social enterprise, they look at more than simply the bottom line.

SELCO Batteries Before a penny had changed hands, and before Friends Unite decided to join this budding partnership, SELCO donated 60 small solar-powered lamps for the children at the school.  The technology behind these solar lamps is very interesting and quite simple.  The children leave a battery pack outside during the day, the sunlight charges it, and the children plug the battery into a small lamp at home and can read at night. I had the opportunity during our visit to the school to look at the lamps and hear stories from the school children on how these little donated lamps already impacted their lives.  The children said the lamps didn’t just impact their lives, but the lives of their families as well.

Around this time, close to a year had passed since our first communication with Sonny and Channa.  We continued to communicate with each other, but Friends Unite had yet to make a decision to officially be a part of this project.  One of our board members, Ketan Soni, was traveling to India to visit family, so he said he would stop by the school and meet Channa.  After close to a year, a few more months was not going to make a difference. Besides, building lasting relationships takes time.

It was after Ketan returned from his trip that things really started moving.  I asked him a simple question, “Should we do it?”  And he provided a simple response, “Yes, we should.” Channa and his vision for the school impressed Ketan.  These kids were being taught how best to make use of the limited natural resources at their disposal.  They were being taught more than English and Math, they were being taught self-sustainability and responsibility.  That impressed Ketan, among many other things, so we took a Board vote and decided to be a part of it.

Click HERE to read Part 6 – The New Leaders

The Anjana School Project: Part 4 – The Solar Solution

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

By Murali Bashyam

Part 4 of 7 – The Solar Solution

What solution did Channa and Sonny propose to solve this electricity problem?  The Sun.

Approximately two years ago, I was introduced to Channa through a mutual friend, Sonny Gupta.  I had known Sonny for many years and told him that I was going to start a non-profit based on the idea of friendship and long-term relationships.  He immediately recommended that I speak with Channa.  Sonny is the founder of Maintec Inc., and his company supported Channa and Brahmi for years.  Sonny gave me some background on Channa and his school, and we scheduled a time for the three of us to speak.

I remember that phone call well.  Channa first gave me some background on himself. I was quite impressed.  Here is a person from that same small community who worked hard to get an education and ultimately received his Ph.D. from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), India’s finest educational institution.  However, Channa’s enthusiasm in talking about founding the school, educating children who didn’t have access to it, and giving back to his own community impressed me even more.

He spoke with real passion, and I listened intently.

Channa had spent considerable time founding and running the school.  He described their achievements so far, as well as the challenges they faced.  His focus was electricity, or more accurately, the lack of it.  Having lights would help the children read and learn better.  In addition, Channa believed having a computer lab in the school would improve the children’s education.  Consistent electricity would help them power it, thereby providing the children with access to modern technology and educational tools that others around the world enjoy. Channa believed this was the next step to help these children achieve their academic goals.

What solution did Channa and Sonny propose to solve this electricity problem?

The Sun.

Sonny took the lead to identify companies in India that provide solar solutions to energy problems.  He scheduled the first conference call with a company a few weeks later.  Personally, I was ‘green’ to all of this.  At the time, close to two-years ago, I lacked enough knowledge about this technology to determine whether it would work in a rural setting.   Furthermore, I wondered about the costs involved, and more importantly, its sustainability.

During that first call, I listened more than I talked.  Sonny and his colleague at Maintec, Naveen, were both more knowledgeable about the subject than I was.  They asked the company representative the right questions about the delivery of the power from the panels to various parts of the school, as well as how the solar energy would work in combination with grid-electricity.   After all, why use the solar batteries when grid-electricity is working? Our goal was to make the most efficient use of all resources.

While Sonny and Naveen focused on the more technical aspects of power delivery, I again focused on cost and sustainability. By sustainability, I mean the cost of repairs, who would pay for them, how long these systems last, what pitfalls to expect over what period of time, and whether Brahmi and that community could handle these issues on their own.  That was the most important aspect for me – that this need Channa identified for his community should ultimately be their responsibility.   Channa assured me that this would be no problem, and agreed that his community was responsible for themselves and this new technology.

Click HERE to read Part 5 – Partnering with SELCO Solar India

The Anjana School Project: Part 3 – The Electricity Problem

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

By Murali Bashyam

Part 3 of 7  – The Electricity Problem

In rural India, many communities still only receive approximately 3-4 hours of Government provided grid-electricity per day, and they often have it only at night.

Channa and Solar Panels

After visiting the children and seeing the school, it was time to see the solar panels.    SELCO Solar India Private had finished installing them only a few weeks prior to our visit, but the impact was apparent even in such a short period of time.  Channa told us the power had failed in that area for 12 days.  However, the power in the computer lab continued to work – all thanks to solar energy.  Despite the power failure, Channa said the teachers used the powered computer lab to prepare for their classes.  How does one measure the impact of that?

In rural India, many communities still only receive approximately 3-4 hours of Government provided grid-electricity per day, and they often have it only at night.  Despite the advancement in India’s big cities, and despite India enjoying one of the fastest growing economies in the world, even electricity in big cities sometimes fails and power rationing exists.   However, it is the rural communities that have been left behind to a large degree.   In Bangalore, these big, beautiful, powered, IT centers are located only a 30 minute drive from a small, rural, farming village that receives very little electricity.

Click HERE to read Part 4 – The Solar Solution

The Anjana School Project: Part 2 – The Hokey Pokey: Global Barrier Breaker!

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

By Murali Bashyam

Part 2 of 7 – The Hokey Pokey:  Global Barrier Breaker!

Silence turned to laughter and dancing when Uma started the Hokey Pokey.

From the moment my wife and I stepped out of the car and met Channa for the first time, I knew we would witness something wonderful that day.  A positive vibe was in the air, and Channa welcomed us as graciously as a person could.  He was happy to see us, show us the school, introduce us to the children, and explain his vision for the school and its future.  He spoke passionately about a school where children would learn to make the best use of the limited resources they have, and of a school where children of different religions could learn together in religious tolerance and harmony.

One of the first people we met was one of Channa’s former teachers.  He referred to him as his mentor.  Channa told us that his mentor’s influence inspired him to work hard and obtain his Ph.D.  To me, this demonstrated a clear case of paying it forward.  Channa was now giving back to his community the same way his mentor had once helped him.

As we walked through the school grounds, Channa explained to us how the school started 10 years ago in three small rooms.  He called that part the ‘old school.’  The ‘new school’ was a nice three-story structure that now houses grades one through 12. We walked through the new school and stopped in a few classrooms.   It is a small school – there was one classroom for each grade.  However, it currently educates about 300 children who would otherwise lack access to a formal education.

The first classroom we walked into had the school’s first graders.   These kids were very cute, and very quiet.  As they watched us, I’m sure they wondered who we were and what we were doing there.  Channa, in an effort to make a connection between the kids and us, asked my wife, Cheryl, to come sit in the middle of the room.  He told the children to say “Hello, Auntie Cheryl.”  Still silence.  He asked Cheryl to sing them a song, but she didn’t know what to sing given the language barrier.  Then Channa’s wife, Uma, stepped in and solved the impasse.

She started singing the Hokey Pokey!

Doing the Hokey Pokey!

Of all the songs, Uma chose the Hokey Pokey.  It reminded me of a trip Cheryl and I took with our Friends Unite colleague, Pam Prather, and a number of others, to Africa last year.  After watching the Maasai Warriors show us their ‘war’ dance, our group wanted to reciprocate and show them a dance that best represented America. What did we choose to show the Maasai? The Hokey Pokey!  And here I was again, this time in India, watching Uma, Cheryl, and the first grade students – a room filled with both young and old – all singing, dancing and laughing to the Hokey Pokey.

Click HERE to read Part 3 – The Electricity Problem

The Anjana School Project: Part 1 – New and Old India

Sunday, September 4th, 2011

Everything begins somewhere…

I wrote this article to provide some insight into how our partnerships with Brahmi, the Anjana Vidyakendra School, SELCO Solar India, and many others began, and why what we all are doing together is important.

We believe if access to modern technology is the key to advancing educational and economic opportunities, so is access to sustainable energy.

Together we can help children get the education they need to help themselves and those around them.

- Murali Bashyam

Part 1 of 7 – New and Old India

About 20 minutes later, however, the big, beautiful office buildings turned into small houses and shacks, with plentiful undeveloped farmland.

When I visited Bangalore as a child decades ago, I remembered it as being a very quiet city with a moderate climate. It felt good to breathe the clean air. That Bangalore no longer exists. This Bangalore has beautiful Western-style shopping malls, numerous restaurants to choose from, fancy sky-rises, and plenty of well-dressed business people roaming the streets. Unfortunately, it also has plenty of congestion and pollution to go along with the growth. The quaint Bangalore I once remembered as a child is now a very busy metropolitan city.

As we drove from the busiest section of Bangalore to the outskirts to visit the children at the Anjana Vidyakendra school, which is administered by our partner Brahmi, a non-governmental organization in India, I couldn’t help but notice the towering buildings that sit on both sides of the main road. This was Bangalore’s information technology (IT) corridor, and these buildings were occupied by both large and small local and multi-national businesses. We drove by familiar signs – IBM, Sun Microsystems, DELL Computers etc. There were also unfamiliar ones – home grown Indian companies that arose out of global commerce.

About 20 minutes later, however, the big, beautiful office buildings turned into small houses and shacks, with plentiful undeveloped farmland. These communities were small and were ‘poor’ compared to what I had just seen. There were no steel structures with shiny glass. People mingled outside their abodes. There were cows everywhere, and street dogs roamed the streets for food.

Seeing this was not new to me – I had seen it all before.

After all, we were now outside the big city and in rural India. At one time, the big cities exhibited many aspects of rural India. Commerce and our global economy has changed that.

When we finally found the school, the first thing that stood out to me was the short dirt road between the spot where I saw the sign, “Anjana Vidyakendra School,” and the school itself. The road was incredibly smooth and the vegetation around it was well kept. Dr. Channa Raju, who administers the school and founded Brahmi, later told me the children get together and work to fix that road. The school, the environment, and the road belonged to the students, and they worked together to make it the best they could – collaboration for the greater good.

Click HERE to read Part 2 – The Hokey Pokey:  Global Barrier Breaker!