Reports from Cycle Tour of India 2017

Karen’s Report:

I was one of 19 cycling participants on the 7 day cycling tour to fundraise for Yatra Foundation. We had a very well supported cycle through a variety of terrain and difficulty levels around Rajasthan. The support crew included Renu, a group of 3 cycling guides, a bike mechanic and drivers for the support vehicle, the bike truck and the group commuter bus. Our accommodation was a highlight as each place was incredibly unique with an abundance of delicious food, delightful hospitality and only the occasional cold shower. I felt the tour represented incredible value for money as a participant, and incorporated heaps of fun, dancing, singing and other amazing adventures such as our dusk camel ride in the Thad desert.

At the completion of the cycle, the group divided up to spend a day visiting single classroom schools (Shiksha Kendra or SK) in small groups. SKs are community classrooms with a focus on children between the ages of 6 and 14. They ensure these kids are able to read, write, speak Hindi and understand basic maths. These fundamentals enabling the children to join the education system that is available in their district, once the children are old enough to travel independently to the local government or other school. We first had a briefing with Priyanka Singh the CEO of Seva Mandir, which is the nonprofit organization in Rajasthan in running the SKs. Priyanka spoke to the group about the history, mission and values of Seva Mandir. Seva Mandir exists to help the neediest communities improve their lives by tackling problems they identify as important. This broad charter covers multiple programs such as health, empowering women and social enterprise to name just a few. Yatra Foundation supports the education arm of Seva Mandir which currently educates 6000 kids in Rajasthan each year through their 173 alternate classrooms (SKs) and their 3 learning camps. The alternate classrooms are often single teacher classrooms, in remote villages where more than half the kids don’t go to school and one third have never been to school. Many of these kids in the SKs are first generation learners and their participation is leading to an increasing demand for quality education amongst families from the most disadvantaged backgrounds in rural India.

I visited the SK in Dheemdafala Village: Kanpur. There are 70 families in the hamlet who survive on farming and goat rearing. Seva Mandir has been working in this very under privileged hamlet since 2003. Development of a community classroom was one of their first projects, along with a water collection system for irrigation. There is no functioning government school close by for the children of this area and so, prior to the SK, these children would be working as child labour most likely in the fields and would not receive a school education. SK Dheemdafala has 50 children enrolled in two classrooms with two local teachers/aides. On the day we visited, there were more than 50 children present as the local government preschool had been closed down, and so these younger children were also in attendance.

The children were sitting in a large circle with their books in front of them on the ground, and paid close attention to their teacher. The children happily read to us, showed us the writing and drawings in their work books, and also sang some songs for us in Hindi, along with all the actions. Like so many of the children in India, these kids had big beautiful smiles and clearly loved coming to school. The attendance records for the SK demonstrated this with an impressive daily attendance record which we were able to review. We met with the village parents and discussed what the school meant to them. The head villager spoke at length about the importance of the school to the community and the parents also expressed strong support for their children’s attendance at the SK. The parents answered our many questions. When asked how many of the 20 or so mums had been to school, around 6 hands went up, ad of those, none had been educated beyond 11 years old. It was therefore the highlight of the day to meet an impressive young lady from the hamlet who is currently attending university to become a teacher. This young lady had attended the SK and followed the desired pathway of completing her secondary education at the local government school and from there, gaining admission to university. This young lady is a role model for the other children of the village and in fact her younger brother told us that he is now confident and hopeful of going to university to study engineering. It was clear to everyone that the opportunities for the disadvantaged children of this hamlet had been transformed in one generation by the access to a quality education.

On a previous trip to India, I visited one of the Yatra schools in Rajasthan as opposed to the SK, run by Seva Mandir, on this occasion. My impression is that a quality education is being provided at both schools. The facilities, although simple, at the Yatra school did seem slightly superior, with larger classrooms, fully qualified teachers and smaller class sizes. The excitement and enthusiasm at both the SK and the Yatra school was remarkable, especially once we sat down to speak with the adults and the kids headed out to play with their new Frisbees and soccer ball!

The partnership  between Yatra Foundation and Seva Mendir is ideal as the overarching goals of the organisations are the same and together, they can provide an opportunity for education to more children than they could individually. Seva Madir is a well established and reputable organization with broad infrastructure and knowledge in the field. Yatra currently provides funding for 23 of the 173 SKs in Rajasthan, and the SK program is successfully providing quality education to disadvantaged children with spectacular results.

– Karen Fitt

Sara’s Report:

My first impression was how remote the school was – I shouldn’t have been surprised having been previously to Faria but I think the hills make every thing seem even more remote – no wonder the little ones can’t walk to the government schools.  The school was just gorgeous – it was decorated just as if it was a prep-level school anywhere in the world – paintings, educational posters and the children’s happy drawings all over the walls from ceiling to floor – it just made it a really inviting/exciting place to be. The children all appeared to be transfixed and excited to be at school – on our arrival they were all thoroughly focussed on their tasks.  I know they were probably on their best behaviour due to our visit but they really did have an intensity at their tasks that you don’t see often at that age!  The main teacher appeared to be strict but kind –  the children followed his instructions happily and did not seem scared or intimidated by him.

The staff from Seva Mandir (SM) who accompanied us to the school were extremely competent and exuded an excitement about their roles in the organisation as well as the organisation as a whole.  I think the guy who came with us was part of the social work group and he was knowledgeable and really seemed to care about the welfare of the children and the village.  I could have misunderstood the whole system but I really liked the fact that SM is not jut an education charity – I know that’s the bit we support but it feels good to be part of an organisation that sees the bigger picture when it comes to education – if the village is not doing well then it follows that education would take a back seat.  Via an interpreter the man of the village spoke of how lucky he felt to have such an amazing organisation and school involved in their village and said that SM had done great things for the village in general.

The CEO of SM was amazing – she just exuded a serenity and intelligence that I could have listened to her speaking all afternoon! She listened well to the comments from the group and responded well to the questions posed.  I liked the way she kept returning to the base mission of SM to keep all the different/competing ‘departments’ of the organisation unified.

– Sara Kernick

Tim’s Report:

We visited the SK in rural Udaipur which taught approximately 60 students ranging from ages 3 to 7. The attendance at the school was only at around 60% with many of these students being away due to illness. In terms of a gender split with the SK there was close to an even split between both girls and boys. All the children at the school all looked very excited and enthused to be there, which shows an eagerness to learn. This was also reflected during the parent-teacher conference where it was evident that the parents were all very pleased with the support that Yatra is offering their children.

The youngest students were in the A class and seemed to be engaged in learning both basic writing and reading in Hindi as well as beginning to learn some English letters. When engaging with the slighter older students in the B class it was obvious the progress the students make as these students could recognise English letters and recite them back to us. The C class were doing more advanced reading and writing. All classes undertook maths with each progressive class learning more and more difficult maths. The students day was divided into 2 sections of maths and reading, writing work. When we saw the students they had just begun their second session and still appeared very happy and interested in what they were being taught. Being there I could tell that all the children wanted to be there and were all willing to learn. The environment felt supportive and the children were encouraged to learn. All in all this SK had a very positive vibe with happy students and teachers.

– Tim Bliss


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