For eight days in June this year, Pushparaj (14), a Class 7 student at the Canal Bank Road Corporation School, Chennai, will not be able to assist his father in arranging his vegetable cart or help his mother get water from the hand pump. He will be travelling to Germany for eight days. The annual ‘Wings to Fly’ competition organised by RC Madras East (RCME), D 3230, has made this “impossible dream come true for me,” he says.
Pointing out to the new Adidas shoes Pushparaj is sporting, his Principal J Dhanammal, says with pride, “My student won the competition barefoot. His parents couldn’t afford to buy him shoes. Now he has a pair of wings from Rotary and shoes as a gift from a family where his mother works as domestic help.”
The story of Pushparaj and seven other corporation school students is “nothing short of a fairytale. This competition aims at helping government schools improve their numbers and sensitise them on value education,” says Club President K Ananth.
What began as a small activity to be conducted by the club at a few corporation schools as part of the District’s vocational service in 2015, has transformed into “our biggest project, in terms of participation, concept and content,” says Rtn Neelakantan, adding that “PDG C R Raju could have organised this as a big district project during his term, sent eight children to Malaysia and forgotten about it the same year. But he wanted to ensure continuity. So, he chose RCME to take this up as one of its regular projects.”
“But it wasn’t easy; I had to wait for three hours at a Corporation school just to hand over the competition brochures to the head master,” says Rtn Mansoor Ahmed, who along with the Project Chairman Magesh Pattabhiraman “visited the Chennai Corporation office almost every day to answer the same question over and over again ‘What’s in it for Rotary or you?’ The green signal came after weeks of “sweet talking.”
Few corporation school heads were hesitant to participate in the event because they had to “perform outside their comfort zones and this was not part of the school routine or curriculum,” says Pattabhiraman. Fair participation and results had to be ensured and “we couldn’t let reluctance or favouritism get in the way.” Each of the 70 participating schools conducted the first round in their schools and over 100 YMCA College Rotaractors supervised it. Out of 380 semifinalists, 32 competed in the finals for junior and senior levels and eight won tickets to Malaysia.
Smartly dressed and beaming with joy in the pictures, the children didn’t have adequate clothes, footwear or even bags to carry their stuff to Malaysia. Once they were selected, “and we asked them to pack their best clothes they replied, ‘We will wear our school uniforms, we are very comfortable in them.’ Then we realised that they were hiding their poverty behind their school uniforms,” says Rtn V A Raamesh.
The Rotarians took N Bharathi, a Class 12 student, and other selected students shopping to prepare for Malaysia.
“I went to the big shops for the first time and (Rtn) Vasuda Mam got us everything we wanted,” she recalls.
Next came the hurdle of the passport, which obviously, none of the children had. And, to get one, many of them didn’t even have address proof; “neither a ration or Aadhar card and one didn’t even have a birth certificate,” says Pattabhiraman. After a few weeks of “juggling between the passport office and Corporation office, we organsied passports for seven children.” But one child who had been abandoned by his father and had no identity proof, couldn’t be helped. “We postponed the trip by a month hoping that we could do something, but in vain.”
Off to Malaysia
Seven winners, one Corporation officer, a Principal from one corporation school and six Rotarians were greeted by PDG Siti Subaidah, D 3300, at the Kuala Lumpur airport. Bharathi, who aspires to become an IAS officer, says, “the Petronas Twin Towers can sway. I was so taken aback that I ran back screaming.” One thing she learnt on this trip was to “keep our country clean. Even the dustbins in Kuala Lumpur are well maintained.”
Recalling her visit to a local Tamil medium school, Shivakami (13) from the Corporation Girls’ Higher Secondary School, Saidapet, says, “They don’t mix languages. For instance, Tamil and Malay aren’t mixed with English, unlike our ‘Tanglish’ here… I loved their culture, especially the respect they give to every language.” She is one of this year’s winners too.
Each student was given MYR 350 to spend in Malaysia, and they wanted to buy souvenirs or chocolates.
In its second year, the project has enthused both students and teachers. Dhanammal, a Principal, says, “We are so happy that two of our children are going to Germany.” S Uma Maheswari, a teacher at the Canal Bank Road school who trained Pushparaj and Haripriya (this year’s winners) regrets that earlier she did not take this programme seriously, and says, “The majority of our students come from very poor background. I don’t even ask my students if they’ve had breakfast; for if they say no, we can’t provide them. But because of Rotary, these children are now dreaming to go to a foreign country.” Wiping her tears, she adds, “My students are as smart as a computer. Ask Pushparaj to replace a word, sentence or paragraph just minutes before his speech, and he will do that without a problem.”
A foreign trip warranted celebration! So sweets were distributed among students of the Shenoy Nagar Corporation School. “We had to celebrate, this was the second time in a row that our school won and this year two of our students will be going to Germany,” says Selvakumari, the teacher who worked hard to ensure M Parthiban and Madhan Kumar win in the junior level.
Water conservation being the topic of this year’s competition, it came as a pleasant surprise to find the students so knowledgeable on the water bodies of Chennai. “My grandfather told me stories of travelling across the city in a coracle and that Chennai had many lakes. I used his story in my speech,” says Parthiban. Bright-eyed Madhan Kumar, who wants to be an archeologist and clean up the Cooum river, is an orphan, but is very excited about his upcoming trip to Germany. “My friends have given me Rs 20 to buy chocolates for them from Germany, but I know that the money won’t be enough,” he laughs. Parthiban says, “When our school’s name was called, I never thought I would be the winner. My Appa, who works as a taxi driver believed me only after I showed him the certificate.” Both the boys are best friends but are worried they might not get a window seat on the airplane!
Pattabhiraman’s worries are a little different. “Do you have a ration card or Aadhar card?” he enquires as he has already started working on the passports. “Last year was a lesson.” Next year Wings to fly will be taking off to London. The hard work, happiness, enthusiasm and confidence of these children has inspired the Rotarians to do more. Nityasree of Class 8, who lost in the finals, isn’t one bit disheartened. “I will go to London and I have already started preparing for the competition,” she says cheerfully.
The Goethe-Institut tie-up
Geetha Vedaraman, Programme Co-ordinator at the Goethe-Institut Max Muller Bhavan says she was in complete awe of the students. “Just in three minutes the children quoted a Thirukural, discussed the problem and found a solution for the water crisis in the city.” The Institut has been addressing water conservation in Chennai ever since its inception.
It organised a training programme for the finalists where story teller Jeeva Raghunath fine-tuned the oratory skills of these students. The institute is facilitating the Germany trip, and is conducting a crash course on spoken German for the winners, and will help the young tourists get a good darshan of Berlin and Hamburg.