Our visit to the Christel House Foundation was scheduled for a Monday. We decided to leave a little early – so that we could avoid the start-of-the-week traffic. But folks headed to work seemed to have the same idea too! Coupled with the fact that we got our directions wrong, it took us a good three hours to arrive at this school. But it was a ride well-worth what lay ahead for us.
As you enter their premises, you understand why they decided to be located at an hour and a half’s drive out of the city. For space! And they’ve utilized their seven-acre property well to provide some of the best facilities for their children. A walk around leads you to a football field, a volleyball field, a basketball court, and a playground outside; and the building houses 29 classrooms, 3 science labs, a computer laboratory, a dining hall and kitchen, a well-stocked music room and an even better stocked library. I just couldn’t help but think back to my school days on my visit here; and note how we didn’t have access to half these facilities.
There was more in store for us to be impressed by. But we only realized this when we started chatting with the children. Dressed in bright yellow uniforms, these kids aren’t just a pleasure to look at but speak to too. Polite and articulate, we were greeted by a hundred “Good morning Ma’am” in fluent-English as we went around the premises. Christel House’s mission is to “help children around the world break the cycle of poverty, realize their hopes and dreams and become self-sufficient, contributing members of society.” And I could see, in front of my own eyes, how the robust, wholistic education they provide would truly be doing that. It was also after meeting some of the students that I realized that their feats (such as participating in the Adobe Youth Voices Summit at Santa Clara or participating in a Summer Football camp in Dubai) had been achieved clearly on their own merit.
Christel House enrolls children who live in one of the slums within 18 kms from the learning center – an intentional decision to ensure that getting to school itself does not act as a deterrent. Another prerequisite is that their total combined family income should be below Rs. 3,500 per month. Infact, they have a meticulous process in place, which includes unannounced home visits, orientation as well as commitment from parents. And this process is strictly adhered to for all of the 70 children (of the 1,500 applications received) who enter Kindergarten annually. In this manner, Christel House Foundation identifies children from the most impoverished families – who, in all likelihood, would have had the bleakest of futures. On our visit, their staff shared a really interesting anecdote. In recent years, during a couple of unannounced home visits, the staff learnt that families were moving into temporary houses that fell within the stipulated 18 kilometers radius, for the month of May ( which is a month prior to the start of the school year, during which the background checks on the children are done). Families had seen the advantage the Christel House education gave and clearly wanted their children to stand a good chance at being selected. This led to Christel House requesting families to submit ration cards too (which prove residence from a particular year) during the admission process!
They understand that the families their children come from struggle with many problems — violence, domestic abuse, alcoholism, drugs, illiteracy. So, they also do outreach programs to help parents become better caregivers, and to cope with daily challenges. Courses on topics like combating domestic violence, health and hygiene, HIV prevention and financial management are also conducted for the benefit of parents. Their decision that students should return home each evening (rather than live at Christel House) is also an intentional one. This way, they can take lessons and values learned at Christel House back home, and thus become a positive force for change in their communities.
Christel House children take the Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC) at grade 10 and the Pre-University Certificate (PUC) at grade 12. A lot of effort has been spent by their staff over the years to make the classes inspiring, interesting, interactive and most of all, fun. Given the students’ background, they felt it important to spend the time and effort to ensure their students are not discouraged by the challenges they face. It is only as the students advance that the curriculum becomes more challenging and emphasizes academic rigor. The organization has infact reached a critical stage in its operations in India with the first batch of standard 12 students having graduated just last year. This has prompted them to put together a new team that not only helps children with their post-Christel House academic/career decisions but also monitors the same. All commendable initiatives are keeping with their mission to end the cycle of poverty!
If you’re inclined towards making a difference by educating children, I would strongly urge you to spend a day at this school. As you interact with the children, you are sure to forget that most of them are from backgrounds where going to school is an unattainable dream. These are first-generation learners; most of their family members have had little or no exposure to education. So helping them overcome the challenges that their learning process is fraught with, that too with flying colors, is truly remarkable.