What school benches, desks and chairs mean to students can be best gauged from this little story. When Rotarians from a Rotary club put up a Happy School in a village on the outskirts of Chennai, and gave it benches, chairs etc, during snack time one little girl refused to get up from her new chair to enjoy them. After repeated requests yielded no results, one of the Rotarians sat next to her and gently asked her why she didn’t want to eat anything. And that child said: “This is the first time in my life I have sat on a chair; and I have been told that this is my chair; so why are you asking me to leave it so soon?”
This incident is narrated to me by Rtn Pankaj Patel, President of RC Pune Far East, D 3131, who, along with his club members, has totally transformed Tambe, a tribal village about 116 km from Pune… meeting its water storage needs and building a spanking new school for the 100-odd students of the Higher Secondary Babasaheb Ambedkar Vidyalaya in that village.
Suresh Poddar is such a passionate donor and he says that when Bill Gates has contributed so much to Rotary, why can’t I give too? By god’s grace, I have more than I need, and I don’t have any vices to spend money on!
— Pankaj Patel
President RC Pune Far East.
The way the village and school project came about is a typical example of how the camaraderie and fellowship spirit in Rotary can trigger life-changing projects. One fine day during the Rotary year 2014–15, some Rotarians from RC Pune Far East, who are members of the ‘Happy Hours’ group, went for a picnic to the Manikdoh dam near the Junnar taluka. Present at that picnic were Club President Mihir Raje, and then Club Secretary Pankaj Patel. There they met Ravindra Bhimaji Talpe, a Central Government Child Development Project Officer and Arun Dhondibhau Matele, a senior teacher at the Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Vidyalaya in Tambe village.
Two socially conscious individuals, both were working for the betterment of Tambe, an Adivasi village with some 3,500 inhabitants. The Rotarians expressed interest in the needs of the village and were told that even though it had a good rainfall the people faced water shortage for lack of water storage facilities.
Journey of a thousand steps
The Rotarians decided that their club would adopt the village and turn it into a ‘happy village’. First, the club decided to build water tanks in the village using the Rs 60,000 meant for the club’s Charter Day celebrations party. “They say a journey of a thousand steps begins with that one brave first step — and this was that first step taken by our club,” says Patel. Soon the club donated six water tanks, with platforms, piping and other related material.
As they worked on this project, they once visited the village school — the Ambedkar Vidyalaya — and one of the Rotarians noticed its noticeboard displaying proudly 100 per cent pass in the board exams. She also noticed that the top three rank holders were girl students! “As there are more girls in the village than boys, the school too has more girl students,” says Patel. But the Rotarians noted that the school, located next to a temple, was being run in a ramshackle building with very poor maintenance.
They decided that the school needed a new building, and if they got the land they would raise funds and give the best possible facilities to the students. With a good Samaritan — Danyandev Ramaji Mindhe — donating land for the school, plans were made to give the students a brand new school.
Rtn Rajkumar Magar, Foundation Director of the club, being in the real estate and agriculture business, immediately advised them to barricade the land and donated some money to start the building. By now it was the Rotary year 2015–16 and on August 15, 2016, under the leadership of Club President Rajesh Shah, and presence of Rtn Nilesh Avchare, Patel performed the bhoomi pooja, and assured the villagers they would soon convert their village into a ‘Happy Village’.
As work began, the first stumbling block was a drought-like situation and severe water shortage that brought construction to a halt. And then, in June, with the monsoon setting in, the skies opened up and the rainfall was so heavy that the work could not progress! Though a funding of Rs 10 lakh was readily available, they couldn’t work on the school building.
Meanwhile, Patel’s wife Nimmi, also a member of the same club, had visited Canada and met Susan Peterson, President of RC Markham Sunrise, who offered to do a joint global grant project with their club for Tambe village. But this global grant did not materialise.
This unique project is proof of the training we give to our club presidents to reach out to the disadvantaged in remote areas.
— DG Prashant Deshmukh
Not losing hope, the club continued its efforts and found another possibility of a global grant with RC Havelock Cherrypoint from North Carolina. But even this did not materialise and “due to a few unfortunate incidents, this project fell through. Perhaps God was not yet convinced by our efforts and continued to test our patience and perseverance.”
He adds that sometimes for getting these grants sanctioned, there are “so many questions and so many details required about the projects, the beneficiaries etc, that at our club level it was felt that rather than answer so many questions, we can raise the money ourselves, as TRF grants take so much time. Also, god helps those who help themselves,” says Patel.
The clouds lift
The help came with Patel meeting D 3052 PDG Anil Agarwal from RC Jaipur Midtown, who was invited to Pune for a district event — the youth empowerment seminar. They decided to invite each other’s clubs for a Rotary Friendship Exchange. In September 2016, members of RC Pune Far East — eight couples — visited Jaipur, where they were hosted by the local Rotarians, including AKS member Suresh Poddar (Read his profile at http://rotarynewsonline.org/i-have-more-than-i-need/) and AG Kiran Poddar from District 3052.
“We were shocked to find Poddar at the airport to receive us,” says Patel. The Pune Rotarians were taken to a school in Jaipur where Poddar had contributed generously. In December, some RC Jaipur Midtown Rotarians, including Poddar, visited Pune and were taken to Tambe, the adopted village. On seeing the school project, Poddar instantly announced a donation of Rs 5 lakh, and even returned to Pune for the inauguration on May 1, 2017, and drove a bullock cart in the village!
Awed by Poddar’s generosity, Patel says, “he is such a passionate donor and he says that when Bill Gates has contributed so much to Rotary, why can’t I give too? By god’s grace, I have more than I need, and I don’t have any vices to spend money on! So mujhse paisey nikalo (Get more money out of me!) He is forever ready to give more and his dream is to make government schools modelled on private schools and says children studying there should not lack any facilities.”
Proof of good training
The entire Happy Village project cost around Rs 27 lakh ($41,000) and “thanks to the synergy and co-operation between two districts and two clubs, we were able to do this unique joint project in an absolutely remote village with no facilities. I am really thankful to Suresh Poddar for his generosity,” says District 3131 DG Prashant Deshmukh. Lauding RC Pune Far East for this excellent project, where a non-descript school was totally transformed, with WinS norms implemented, a library set up, etc, he says students have also been given scholarships. “We’ve said that students from this school who score above 85 per cent marks will be given Rs 5,000–10,000 to encourage them.”
Deshmukh adds that he has been encouraging the clubs in his district to work in remote areas where little welfare or development work is done. “And this project is proof of the training we give to our club presidents to reach out to the disadvantaged in remote areas.”
PDG Agarwal, who was instrumental in getting this project going says, “One of the best things in life that you can do is wipe tears and bring smiles; we were able to do that in this village, and that has brought immense satisfaction to all the Rotarians from the two districts who worked on this project. I am so happy that the journey of 1,000 miles did not go a waste and converged into a gift of a school for the children of Tambe.”
Patel adds that they are not yet done with the village. As water shortage and storage are two big problems, “we are determined to go the extra mile. We are now raising funds to give them a pond so that water can be stored. I have myself committed a sum of $10,000.”
His only regret is that the school was delayed as the global grant projects didn’t come through. The Rotarians had promised the Class 10 boys and girls last year that soon they would be sitting not on the ground but benches. That set of boys and girls passed out before the school could be completed. Even though the students who had passed out were made to sit on the spanking new benches when they came to receive their certificates, “one of the girls who passed out of the school told us: ‘It is not the same. We will always regret that we could not study on the benches.’ And we will regret that had we not gone for the global grants and raised our own funds from the beginning, we would have inaugurated the school on August 15, 2016,” sighs Patel.