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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 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!

Video: Solar Energy Project in Rural India

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Listen to Friends Unite Board member, Ketan Soni, as he describes the Anjanavidya Kendra school in rural India, and how solar energy can be used to help provide children with access to modern technology and better educational opportunities.

Manjula’s Story: Giving Back to Her Community In Rural India

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

By Pam Prather

When I think about the story of Manjula, a teacher at the Anjanavidya Kendra (Anjana) School in rural India, I am reminded of a picture that one of our Board of Directors, Ketan Soni, sent me when he visited Berlin, Germany. The picture was of a piece of the Berlin Wall, and on the wall it said, “many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world.”

Like many others in rural India, Manjula’s parents were daily wage earners. Manjula and her brother were students at a private school, near an urban low-income group settlement in Bangalore, India.

Manjula and brother, Shivi, as children

Manjula and brother, Shivi, as children

When Brahmi, a non-governmental organization in India and our partner, started its first project in the slums of Jagadishnagar, Manjula and her brother, Shiva, had become dropouts.  Their mother was seriously ill with an unknown disease and their father had deserted the family.  Brahmi staff found the family living under a tree after they were thrown out of their slum dwelling.  The family was unable to pay rent because there was absolutely no source of income, and the mother was being nursed by her two small children.

Manjula at the school

Manjula at the school

Brahmi took up the task of educating Manjula and Shiva. Manjula was a student of our first program, Akshara, a home school.  The family was provided with accommodations in a nearby village, and Manjula was sent to a Boarding School in Bangalore run by Seva Sadan.  Shiva was sent to Abhayadham, a vocational training school.

In 2002, the children’s mother was completely bedridden, and believed she would die any day. Dr. Amarnarayan,  a medical officer at National Aerospace Laboratories and a member of Brahmi’s Board, diagnosed her with acute hypothyroidism.  After two years of treatment she was able to walk again, and even carry out daily chores.  Brahmi supported her during these years, and later her husband rejoined the family.

In the meantime, Manjula completed high school, as well as pre-university education.  She rejoined her family in the village. In 2010, Manjula was hired by Anjana School as a Trainee Teacher and now earns a salary higher than her father.  She’s considered an excellent teacher, and participates in all the activities she herself was a part of all those years. While she has been presented with other opportunities, Manjula plans to complete her training and become a part of the full-time faculty at the Anjana School.

There were many people involved in helping Manjula along the way.  Now she can give back to her community, and help the Anjana School continue to provide education to rural children in India who would otherwise lack access to it.

Berlin Wall Picture

Piece of the Berlin Wall

Using Solar Energy to Help Children in Rural India

Friday, February 25th, 2011

By Ketan Soni, Director of Friends Unite

I recently traveled to India with my father primarily, to reconnect with distant family.  During my trip, I had the opportunity to visit a partner of Friends Unite, Mr. Channa Raju and his non-governmental organization, Brahmi.

Grounds of Anjana Vidyakendra School in Guttahali Village, India

Grounds of Anjana Vidyakendra School in Guttahali Village, India

Channa and Brahmi founded the Anjana Vidyakendra School in Guttahali village near Bangalore, India.  This school is located in rural India and provides education to children who would otherwise lack access to it.  Unfortunately, the school suffers from severe electricity shortages and is often only on the power grid for 3-4 hours total per day.

Channa described to me his goal of creating a computer lab and having lighting in the facility to allow the children to properly study.   Accomplishing this goal with the current lack of consistent access to electricity would be a challenge.  To that end, we, along with Brahmi and SELCO, a socially responsible solar power provider in India, discussed a plan to install solar panels at the school.  The solar energy generated by the panels would provide the school with enough electricity to consistently power 20 computers, as well as provide facility lighting that would help further the children’s education.

Although we discussed the solar plan in detail prior to my trip, none of us had yet decided to move forward with it.  I wanted to visit the school, meet Channa and the children, and be certain that the project clearly fit within the Friends Unite mission and vision to partner long-term with people and organizations to help people help themselves.

School Children at Anjana Vidyakendra School near Bangladore, India

Indian School Children at Morning Assembly

When I arrived at the school, the children were already there for their morning assembly.   Channa met me near the front of the school and began explaining a day in the life of the kids.  Channa is actually a model for the students.  He grew up not far away from this village, and had the right opportunities to further his education and complete his Ph.D. as a scientist.   He felt compelled to return to his community and provide the same opportunity to others.  Nearly everything he showed me demonstrated the idea of giving back to the community that he was raised in.

As we walked through the school, I realized that my expectations regarding the resources available to the school were far overestimated, and my expectations about the thought put into maximizing those resources was far underestimated.  Let me provide some examples to illustrate my point.

I come home every day without a doubt in my mind that I can do what I need to at night by just flipping on a light switch.  Until recently, these kids went home from school and could not finish their homework because they had no light.  Brahmi’s solution involved maximizing the use of available resources and relationships.  Thanks to a generous donation from SELCO, there are now 50 tiny LED lights that each child can take home.  These LED lights are recharged daily by a small solar panel donated by SELCO.  This means each child can now continue their education at home in a socially responsible, sustainable manner.  Channa told me that these lights are so versatile and functional, that after the children go to bed, their parents sometimes use these lights to find their way around home at night!

Friends Unite Director, Ketan Soni, tours Anjana Vidyakendra School in India

Building at Anjana Vidyakendra School in India

When discussing this new solar panel project with Channa, the careful thought put into using resources was again made clear.  No energy is wasted, as the working model does not require each student to have their own individual computer.  Instead, through work with SELCO, the school managed to find a way for one computer to be used with 4 separate monitors.  In addition, Channa took me to the kitchens, where part of the education involves how to plant, tend, and eventually utilize the grains growing right next door to the school.  In this way, Channa showed me Anjana school’s mix between a practical and idealistic education.

Nothing given is taken for granted at this school.

The clearest example of how this school is sustainable and future thinking became evident when I met one of the teachers who had been a member of the first class that originated 10 years ago.  Just like Channa, she came back to her village to give back to them.  Ultimately, they were helping themselves.  There could be no greater confirmation in my mind about how many of these students would continue to sustain this school and community down the road without the need for an extraordinary level of outside assistance.

I think of this project not merely as helping to provide education for underprivileged children by powering computers.  Rather, it will give these children an opportunity to take the ideals of the environment in which they grew up and place them on an even playing field with those who had more advantages.  If even one of these students achieves something greater because of this opportunity and gives back to the community, I personally consider that a success.

Each “nudge” that these children absorb will ultimately result in long term changes that I hope to, but may never, experience directly.  The atmosphere of accountability and being conscious of the impact on the environment will stay with these children and influence the attitudes they bring to the outside world and the multitudes of people that they end up influencing in the bright futures they have ahead of them.

The donation of 50 LED lamps by SELCO is a small first step.

The next step is the broader plan of using solar energy to power the entire school facility and computer lab, and to show how solar power can change the lives of children in rural India.   And by doing so, play a small role in helping empower them to change the lives of others.

Inspirational Artwork at Anjana Vidyakendra School in Guttahali Village

"Together We Can" reads the artwork at Anjana Vidyakendra School in Guttahali Village, India