AID: Changing Lives!

Here is a video of some of the amazing things the Association for India’s Development is doing!

 

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New Job, New Joy

For the past week, I have held a new job at Eureka Child: English Teacher. Each day, I now go to one of the Eureka SuperKidz sites that is located in Chennai. Each day, from 5 to 8 pm, I visit the site in a lower-income neighborhood of the city and teach English to children grades 1-8.

As a former English teacher and tutor, this position feels natural and comfortable for me. While there are some new challenges (I usually work with teenagers or adults and have to adjust my techniques to children for example), I leave my new post feeling satisfied each and every day.

My duty differs each day at the after-school program. Sometimes I teach each grade for an hour, and sometimes I may have a group of students for up to 2 hours. It involves a lot of thinking on my feet, especially considering the students don’t understand a lot of English, and so they don’t understand me when I speak to them. Usually another teacher is there to translate in Tamil for me if necessary (which is very important when I am trying to teach students new activities or games), but sometimes I just have to rely on myself.

The students at the site are energetic, eager to learn, and while they are still children who can be very loud seem engaged in their work. I find myself leaving the center more energetic than when I come because I gain energy from the students and from my attempts to help them understand and speak English.

I will continue to teach English at the program for most of my last two weeks with Eureka Child Foundation. This excites me beyond description because it is the greatest feeling to see smiling, grateful faces at the end of the program and to hear the children ask me if I will come again tomorrow.

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New Center, New Hope

I got to attend the opening of a new building for one of the SuperKidz sites last week. Here is the overview of the event that I wrote for the Donor Relations department:

Thenmozhi is one of the 25 participants in the Eureka SuperKidz program in the Soolameni community. The SuperKidz program began in the rural community one year ago, and since that time 9-year-old Thenmozhi has met outside a teacher’s house every single weekday—without missing a day— to learn from the Eureka teachers. Since coming, she has been able to grasp concepts of addition, subtraction and multiplication that she didn’t understand before. According to Thenmozhi, she is learning 200% better at SuperKidz than at school. She attributes her increased ability to learn and her improved grades to two factors.  The first is that she is able to ask her teachers questions about concepts she doesn’t understand, which doesn’t happen in the large classrooms at the government school that she attends. The second factor is that SuperKidz has taught her new learning and studying techniques that help her do better in school. Since she started coming to SuperKidz she her grades have increased drastically, and she moved from 8th rank to 2nd rank at school.

One of Thenmozi’s friends who attends her 5th standard government class, Madhuvarshini, has also attended the program for the past year. In that year, Madhuvarshini’s rank in school has increased from 4th rank to 1st rank. She says that it is easy to learn at SuperKidz, and she likes being able to understand new concepts.

On August 28, 2012, Thenmozhi and Madhuvarshini gather with their fellow students, teachers, and community members in the new Eureka SuperKidz center for its inaugural celebration. . For the first time in the village, SuperKidz now has an official center where supplies can be stored and where students can have shelter from the rain. In order to celebrate, many students perform songs, dances and skits. Thenmozhi and Madhuvarshini perform a traditional dance along with two other SuperKidz students. Then Madhuvarshini shows her newfound English skills by speaking six sentences in English, telling the crowd about the deeds of Mahatma Gandhi.  For the students and teachers at the inaugural ceremony, the event marks not only how far the students have come since Eureka SuperKidz started but also how far they are capable of going in the years ahead.

 

 

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My Rural Teaching Adventure

Eureka Child runs approximately 1000 after-school programs in rural areas in the Tamil Nadu state, and they have also opened two schools. One of these schools is located in a rural area called Koovathur. Similar to most communities where Eureka Child works, farming is the primary industry and most families have low income and education levels.
When the intern coordinator at Eureka Child told me I would be going into the field for four days to work at this school, I had mixed emotions. On one hand, I have spent the last few weeks in Chennai building friendships and a daily routine, one that gives me much joy. My days are filled with a waking up from a comfortable bed, going to work, going to the gym, walking around my neighborhood, eating good food that my housemom makes and that I am used to (and that I know won’t make me feel quesy!), seeing roommates I know and love, perhaps skyping friends and family I know and love, and then going to sleep in a comfortable bed. On the other hand, I was excited for the adventure and the chance to do something I considered worthwhile with my time.
Once I arrived at the school, my worries were put to rest when I quickly developed new friendships and a new routine. I arrived at the school on Wednesday and went straight to teaching 5th standard (5th grade). At first, I mostly watched the teacher use large cards with various columns of subjects, verbs, and objects to ask the students to make sentences from the columns. Then she was called out of the classroom, and she didn’t come back for close to an hour. I continued the activity, and then once we finished I had to think on my feet to create more things to do. I ended up having a discussion with them about differences between India and the United States, which was very limited considering I don’t speak Tamil and their English is limited to what they have learned in school. Nonetheless, I made it through the class and the kids excitedly said goodbye to me.
That evening, I moved my stuff from the headmaster’s office to his house, which is located in an apartment building right behind the school. He and his wife moved me into their room, and he gave up his bed for me and slept on a hard floor in an empty apartment next door. His wife stayed in the room with me. Gomanth, the headmaster, is young at just 29 years old. He worked at Eureka Child for six years while simultaneously going to school part-time to receive his master’s degree. He just began working as the headmaster of the school two months ago. He married his wife Viji a year ago, and she works as a teacher at the school in the upper kindergarten class (kindergarten is split into two grades: ages 3 ½ to 4 ½ and ages 4 ½ to 5 ½).
For the next three days, I led English activities in 5th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd standards (grades). Each day, I arrived at around 9 am. Children would have a short group assembly and then go to class. We had two recesses and lunch throughout the day, but otherwise the children spent the day in class, sitting on the floor in circles and learning Tamil, English, math, and science. The children come from seven different villages near the school location. Each day, Autorickshaw drivers drop them off and pick them up, loading as many as 20-25 children into one small auto. I was amazed each and every day that so many children could fit.
Over the course of the four days, my greatest fear was that I was not helping these students gain skills—that I was failing these students in some way. In the United States, I worked as a teacher at an after-school program called African Community Education. It was the hardest job I ever had. My students were all African refugees and immigrant teenagers from various countries and economic backgrounds. Some students had just recently come to the United States and were not yet fluent in English. Others, who had been here for multiple years, chose to think of the program as a time for social interaction and often tried not to participate in the classwork (note that these are teenagers, and they had the attitude to boot). I did my best each week to engage the students and help them gain their skills, but I was inherently aware that I did not have the ability to help all these students with such different needs get to where they could be. It was frustrating. During my time at the Eureka School, I had many of the same feelings of wondering if I could possibly do enough to help these students learn English. The wonderful thing about most of the classes I was in is that the youth were excited to learn English and engaged in the learning process. With my teaching background and their enthusiasm, I felt that I had the ability to help them grow as English speakers—although I did find myself repeatedly wishing I had more supplies or materials in order to better teach. In the United States, I would have spent at least 1-2 hours prepping a day’s activities, but I didn’t have the luxury of the ability to prep (because I never knew what I would be teaching) nor did I have access to internet or any other lesson plans that could have helped me better teach the students. Thus it was a bit of a nerve-wrecking process, but the children I taught were always excited to learn.

My trip was not only about my time spent and lessons learned at the school. While this was the primary purpose of my visit and the primary use of my time, I also learned a lot about life in rural Tamil Nadu in the process. Each morning I woke up early, took my book outside to the terrace, and watched an amazing assortment of birds and butterflies. When I looked around, I saw farmland and palm trees as well as a few roads where the occasional car, bus, or cart pulled by bull would pass. It was a wonderful change from the honking horns and crammed buses of Chennai. After school each day, I took a walk. Each day, I would go in a different direction. I walked to and through various surrounding villages, greeting the people and enjoying the calmness in the process. On the second day, I was walking past a playground when children came running to me. This happened every day of my walk, but these particular children included some of the students in my class. They grabbed my hand and pulled me to the swing sets. We talked and played, and it was a wonderful feeling to see the pride they felt in my being their teacher. On the third day, I ran into another little girl, who asked me my name and asked if I was a teacher at Eureka. One of her friends was in the 5th standard class. What an awesome feeling to know that students were excited enough to tell their friends about me.
Each evening I would spend time reading and watching tv with Gomanth and Viji, as well as a girl from one of the nearby buildings. She was in the sixth grade at a nearby school, spoke very good English, and every day after school she would come over and work on her homework at the house. I love to make jewelry, so one day after she had finished her homework I got out my button ring supplies and showed her how to make button rings. The next day, Viji wanted to learn. She picked out about four different rings that she wanted and asked me to make them for her. I started, and she watched carefully and quickly picked up how to make them. I have showed dozens of people in the past how to make button rings, but she is the first person I have ever showed who made one perfectly the first time. Her husband Gomanth also liked the rings; he took one of his wife’s rings and wore it for more than 24 hours! It was such an exciting and fun night to share something I love to make with others. I left Viji with some supplies to keep making rings, so I get to know that she will continue her newly learned craft.
Community is probably the most important part of my life. I take my relationships with others very seriously, and I believe that we are meant to live in connection to others. My entire experience at the Eureka School was wonderful because I so quickly felt like a part of the community. I felt I got to share pieces of myself with the students, teachers, and community and I got to learn from them in return.

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What is most exciting about my time in Koovathur is that it is not over. The plan as of now is that I will be creating more tools that they can use to teach English and returning to the school to teach for a few more days, this time implementing the tools I have created. I will remain a part of the greatest community that I have yet to experience in India so far and will hopefully be able to positively impact their programming throughout the rest of my internship.

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Two success stories!

Nithya

When 8-year-old Nithya first came to the Eureka Superkidz program in Amirthapuram Village two years ago, he could not read or write.  According to his teacher, Nithya’s mom and dad both stuttered, and Nithya had severe issues with stuttering as well. After one year in the program, his stutter went away. After two years in the program, he is able to read and write. Nithya continues to attend the program and develop his Tamil, English, math and science skills each day after school.

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Bharath

During a break time at SuperKidz, teachers commend 13-year-old Bharath for his dancing and turn on music to give him the opportunity to dance for his peers. With a wide smile on his face, he does. Soon more boys join him, showing off their dance skills for a group of 40 students. For Bharath, the Eureka SuperKidz program has been a place of acceptance. His teachers and peers accept him and encourage his skills, and more importantly he has learned to accept himself. Bharath, who is in seventh standard, has growth hormone deficiency—more commonly known as dwarfism. Bharath said that at first he felt insecure about not growing, but SuperKidz has reminded him that while he may not be able to grow physically he can grow mentally.  His marks in school have improved from 10 out of 50 marks to 30 out of 50 marks since he started attending SuperKidz. Bharath said that the SuperKidz program has been a positive learning experience “not only for me, but for all the students; it helps us to learn more.”

 

Bharath dances for his classmates

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SuperKidz Stand Out

Like many of the rural areas in the Tamil Nadu state, Amirthapuram Village is an area where most of the adults in the community are not educated, struggle to teach their children, and rely on agriculture or small business to care for their families. Unlike some other villages, however, students and parents can attend the Eureka SuperKidz program that is housed at a private school in the area. According to George Babu, an administrator at the school where the program takes place and a trainer for Eureka SuperKidz, many of the children didn’t know how to read or identify letters of the alphabet when they first started attending the program but can now.  Babu states that the program works in part because of the playful learning that the kids partake in. “It is a different kind of material that we are using,” he says. These materials include games like snakes and ladders, picture stories and books, and play money. In addition to the materials, each teacher leads approximately 12-15 children, which compares to a government classroom where each teacher has 50-60 students in the classroom.

All three of Babu’s children attend the SuperKidz program. They have attended the program since before Babu began working there approximately five years ago.  Babu says their grades and knowledge have improved since participating in the program, which he says happens to most students who attend the after-school program. As an administrator of the John Roland School, Babu says that there is an obvious difference between the school performance of students who participate in Eureka Superkidz and the ones who don’t: “The students in SuperKidz are doing better than non-SuperKidz students.”

*This has been written for the Eureka Child Donor Relations Department.*

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Beauty–and its Beasts

At every village I have traveled to, I have befriended gorgeous girls with wide smiles. At each village I visit, I meet children who I can’t stop looking at because I think they are so pretty. Each time I talk to these children—and here is where I get angry—I am disgusted by the fact that they will grow up thinking they are not pretty because their society will tell them that they are not. Why? They don’t fit the Indian standard of beauty. In this particular case, which is one of the greatest demands of beauty in India, their skin is not fair.

I first became truly aware of this issue when an Indian friend of mine from the UK told me about her own insecurities about her skin color. When I first met this particular friend, before we were friends, she had stood out to me because I thought she was absolutely gorgeous. I still think it. Yet as I got to know her, she shared with me that she had spent much of her life trying to compensate for her dark skin. To her, raised in an Indian culture, her skin meant that she would never be beautiful.

I have watched at least a few minutes of television with my housemates every day since I came to Chennai, including Bollywood and Tamil films and videos (where the language Tamil rather than Hindi is spoken). I have seen thousands of advertisements and other forms of media. And I have yet to see a woman represented on a screen, poster, or billboard that looks remotely like the women I see each day.
All of them are light, and many look more Western than Indian. Most have pounds of white makeup on their face to make their skin a different color. How can a standard like this be set that makes most Indian women, with their natural skin color, less than beautiful?

While I am still new to Chennai and have yet to leave the Tamil Nadu state (this is my disclaimer…I am still learning  and have much to learn but this is based on the little I have seen so far), I have seen these beauty standards in multiple other ways as well. One is hair and dress. For hair, the woman must have long and ideally thick hair. They do their hair with clips and braids and can add jasmine in their hair as well. For clothes, women almost always wear one of four different traditional outfits, so the only thing that really changes on this is the material. To be perfectly frank, I find this……dare I say it….boring! I often stare at women on the bus and imagine what she would look like with her long hair up in a bun or curled in long flowing locks. Yet the norm for wearing hair and clothes are firmly set, and almost every woman I have seen has followed that norm.

The last beauty standard I want to talk about is figure. In the past, a well-rounded figure was more appreciated, yet modernization has changed the Indian ideal of beauty. According to Shoma Munshi: “Up until the 1980s, it was fine to be well-rounded and even voluptuous, and films and advertisements of those years reflect this.  But come the 1990s, and Indian cinema and advertising reflect the arrival of the perfectly sculpted body to meet exacting international standards.  It no longer matters that the international blueprint for beauty does not match the time-honored, indigenous one: way taller than the average Indian woman with never-ending legs.” Almost every woman I live with has talked about their weight with me. Many of them have undergone diets or are still dieting in attempts to reach a smaller size. What they have told me about the ideal weight, and even what their families say about their sizes and shapes, fit with this norm of now wanting to be slim and trim. Also, a woman who is tall (but not taller than the man) is more desired than a short woman.

Now I need to make this a little more personal. All of these standards have made me— a 5’2”, curvaceous girl with shoulder length hair—feel ugly. Every day I watch as Indians look at me and feel completely outside of the box of beauty. I have dealt with comments from new friends and strangers about my weight, about my hair, about my clothes, and I have felt unaccepted at times. Now, this is not too bad by any means as I feel like the majority of people I meet accept that I am from another culture and am outside of the realm of their own social norms. Yet, it is enough for me to get a sense of insecurity in my heart.

I am sorry to be so critical of India, but when it come to beauty standards, I am critical in general. In the United States, I grew up looking at women who were tall, thin, and blonde—none of which describes me. I have grown up with feelings of knowing I would never be beautiful enough by my society’s standard. I live in a culture where plastic surgery is becoming more and more commonplace because women (and men) are so often told that they are not good enough as they are. One of the up-and-coming surgeries is the vaginal surgery, where women get one of their most private parts reshaped. On average, about 200,000 women per year undergo the surgery. This is still a small number, but it is becoming increasingly common in a culture that tries to tell you how you should look—even anatomically.

While the definitions of beauty are ever-present throughout the United States, I am lucky enough to have grown up in a culture of love, education, and even awareness of the media and its faults. I also grew up in a diverse place where it is possible to accept that beauty comes in different shapes, sizes, and colors. Beauty has long and short hair, big hips and no hips, jeans and a t-shirt and a slinky black dress. While it hasn’t been easy for me, because of the amazingly supportive people who surround me, my own education and understanding of the media, and a long personal battle to define myself, I now look in the mirror and, for the most part, see a beautiful person. I do want to lose weight, I still like my hair better when I have curled it, and I prefer when my feet are nicely pedicured. All these facts aside, my acceptance has come from knowing that I am beautiful whether I lose ten pounds or gain 100, whether or not I have curly Kardashian hair or no hair at all, and whether or not my toes are perfectly pedicured or could use a little cleaning up.

In this same way, I wish I could tell all the young girls that I meet through my work that they are beautiful whether or not their skin is light, they are beautiful whether or not their hair is dark and think, and they are beautiful whether or not they are slim enough for society’s standards. They were born as they are, and they are beautiful as they are.

American and Indian societies reflect each other in that they both have solid definitions of beauty. Yet in both of these cultures, we need to stop defining beauty in such narrow terms and instead broaden our horizon. When I go visit the Eureka SuperKidz programs, I am amazed at how each child is beautiful in their own way. In fact, I would go so far as to say that we all think most children are beautiful—why does this change as they grow older?

One of the lessons that I will take with me from my time in India is to use the moments I have with children to remind them just how beautiful they are and to show them that I accept them as they are. I know there is no greater feeling than that because part of my experience in India has been learning to do the same thing for myself.    I may not be able to change society’s views on beauty, but I can combat it and redefine it for myself and those around me.

 

 

* Shoma Munshi. Images of the ‘Modern Woman’ in Asia: Global Media, Local Meanings (Surrey: Curzon Press, 2001) 84-85.  Internet.  27 Sept. 2011.  Available: http://books.google.co.in/books?id=qlmLv-oPfHIC

**I read through the following article in writing this post. It is a good starting place for anyone interested in knowing more about beauty standards in India: http://digitalcollections.sit.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2143&context=isp_collection&sei-redir=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.google.co.in%2Furl%3Fsa%3Dt%26rct%3Dj%26q%3Dbeauty%2Bstandards%2Bin%2Bindia%26source%3Dweb%26cd%3D1%26ved%3D0CEsQFjAA%26url%3Dhttp%253A%252F%252Fdigitalcollections.sit.edu%252Fcgi%252Fviewcontent.cgi%253Farticle%253D2143%2526context%253Disp_collection%26ei%3DvqQoUISOGcqIrAei0IGQDA%26usg%3DAFQjCNFNBlA3RMpuxeunojgcjueqkZdpwQ#search=%22beauty%20standards%20india%22

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