Literacy blossoms in the remote desert of India

With smiles from cheek to cheek and with contented looks, Dr. Ashok Malhotra, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor and his partner Ms. Linda Drake, Director, SUNY Oneonta Center for Social Responsibility and Community, just returned from their memorable trip to India that took place during December 2008-January 2009 intersession. Mr. Ken Sider, a teacher from the Riverside School and an adjunct Professor at SUNY Oneonta, his wife Heidi, a guidance counselor from Laurens Central School and their 10 years old daughter, accompanied them. They visited the Indo-International Schools, funded by the Ninash Foundation, a local non-profit, whose goal it is to promote literacy among the poorest of poor children in India’s remote villages.

The highlight of the trip was their pilgrimage to the first Indo-International School in Dundlod, which is Ninash’s Star School. Started in 1996, by the participants of the SUNY Oneonta “Learn and Serve” Study Abroad Program with 50 underprivileged (Dalit) children, now has grown to 500 students from nursery to high school. The high school wing was added in 2007 through the generous donation of Greg and Sue Vancott of Unadilla.

The New Year at the Dundlod School started with four celebrative events: On January 1, Ashok and Linda inaugurated a newly paved road connecting the school to the main road. The Ninash Foundation, through donations from the Oneonta community, supplied 30% of the funds, whereas other 70 % came from the Village of Dundlod. It was a miracle of achievement in the middle of the desert. On January 2, Ashok and Linda gave away 35 milk-producing goats to the poorest of poor people of Dundlod. The children of the Greater Plains Elementary School and the members of Oneonta community raised the money for these goats. On January 3, more than 700 books were donated to the Dundlod School Library on behalf of the children of the Riverside School who had raised $450 as part of the Oneonta Sister City project. It was a memorable experience for the three children and three teachers of the Dundlod School to accompany Ken and his family to purchase these new books because they had never been to a real bookstore in their lifetime. The best part of the visit was the news that two students (a female and a male) from Dundlod School, who 13 years ago had no future other than making a living through picking up and selling cow dung, had broken the social barriers of class, religion and gender to successfully get admission into a college of their choice to further their future. These two students stood out as models for the other children to imbibe. It was a historic moment for Dundlod and the sister city of Oneonta, which through its donations, made this celebrative moment possible.

The group also visited the Indo-International Culture School in Mahapura, Rajasthan, which was opened in 2004. Along with providing the basic education, its goal is to offer vocational training in the preservation of the art of stained glass windows. This school that started with 14 children has grown to more than 180 in 2009. Celebrations at the school involved the opening of the Mimi Forman and John Koller Artisan’s Wing as well as the John Thomas Koller Memorial Library and Computer Center; both of these are funded by the Kollers.

Another highlight of the trip was a visit to the fourth Indo-International School in Kuran, a town in Gujarat, which was totally devastated by the 2001 earthquake. With Ninash Foundation’s financial support the elementary school with 10 rooms was constructed for more than 205 children. Celebrations involved the expansion of the present elementary children school into a high school within the next year; the building of a children center to provide after school recreational activities for the children; the establishing of the school’s library equipped with five computers as well as 2000 books. The highlight of the visit was a promise from the children, teachers and the community to follow the slogan of “each one teach one,” where the 205 children would teach another 205 members of their family and they in their turn would teach another 410 thus making the entire village of 1200 completely literate in five years. A model for the rest of India to follow!

The Ninash Foundation, a local 501©(3) charitable organization, was established in 1996 to raise funds through the local, national and international community to spread literacy among the impoverished children and adults by opening schools in remote villages. The foundation needs to raise at least $25,000 in donations each year to provide funding for its four Indo-International Schools, offering education to more than 900 poorest of poor children of India. The foundation’s goal is to raise a million dollars to set up a trust, the interest from which will be used to fund these schools yearly as well as to build more schools in the future. Donations can be sent to: The Ninash Foundation, 17 Center Street, Oneonta, NY 13820, USA. Please visit the Ninash website at (www.ninash.org) and contribute electronically through the Paypal.