What have we done at KHEL and LDA so far this year? Well, it’s not been the typical year but we’re still doing what we have always done – educating kids and supporting the community.
Here are the highlights from 2020 so far: The year started out normally, with the kids still on winter break * Bhagwat recovered from his broken ribs and came back to work * The kids came back to school * Some of our kids received special service awards from a local nonprofit * The Indian government held a deworming camp at LDA * We took some of our older kids to a leprosy colony * Hunny, one of our Scholarship Recipients, completed his in-person training in Hotel Management in Delhi and came home to Dehradun * (Around this time the news out of China became grim, and other countries started locking down, self-isolating, and quarantining) * Our 8th class students had their graduation party * India still felt like nothing bad was happening but we could see the worldwide trends so we started to educate our kids and community on Coronavirus * Shrishti, one of our 7th class students, earned a gold medal at the Uttarakhand State Boxing Tournament * Schools were closed * Some 8th class exams took place at LDA and other schools with only the teachers and 8th class students present. Other exams were cancelled. For the cancelled finals, monthly and half yearly tests were averaged out to give final marks for the year * Ammaji and Stomy decided not to go to India this year * We celebrated Holi at LDA with some of our kids * India began its initial lock down, with some mobility into the market allowed so that people could prepare their home * Everyone began to stay home (Construction and other industries shut down. India’s migrant workers took the brunt of the lack of income – daily wage earners don’t eat if they don’t work) * KHEL staff went to working from home * Bhagwat’s father passed away * Beni and Keshav stocked up on essential supplies and dry rations for the community * We donated to two government funds for aid to the poor * We took part in a local initiative to raise funds for the poor via local store owners * Hunny researched and purchased 300 masks for KHEL * We gave masks, sanitizer, and other aid to essential workers in our community, to many people in need near our community, and some additional aid to some staff members * Our kids started sharing their at home lockdown experience, which we’ve been sharing on FB and Instagram * Our community was further locked down with no one in or out for 3 weeks * We began planning for an extended lockdown * Community lockdown was upgraded to partial opening of selected businesses, but schools remain closed.
Kamli hands out masks to the community’s sanitary engineers, who will continue to work throughout the pandemic.
Here’s what we’ve been doing behind the scenes during this time. This isn’t chronological because multiple activities were occurring at the same time, and some are ongoing:
Two weeks before lockdown in March, we paid all staff early so they could prepare their homes for a month of quarantine (Beni has to go to the bank to pay KHEL staff, and we didn’t know if he’d be allowed out. It turns out we were right about this). At that time, there was no indication in India that a lockdown would occur as there were very few cases of Covid19 nationwide. But, looking at the trends in other countries, we assumed the problem would continue to grow. We had a staff meeting to apprise them of the situation, explained to them that the situation could be ongoing, encouraged them to prepare their homes, and assured them of our continued support. Senior management began planning to slowly step-down salaries and other benefits as the majority of donations were temporarily suspended – many donors worldwide were in some level of self-isolation or quarantine and were understandably unable to continue funding KHEL. We worried about our staff but couldn’t find a solution to our funding issues (thankfully, we didn’t have to do this – more on this later).
We tapped our emergency savings fund to purchase bulk dry rations and safety supplies. As the days went by, more and more people came to Beni’s home begging for food – all work had stopped, and daily wage earners don’t eat if they don’t work. It wasn’t long before the dry rations and safety supplies ran out and Beni started giving out cash which he’d taken out of KHEL’s account before the lockdown. At one point the crowd outside Beni’s home had grown to hundreds of people, and the situation started to deteriorate. Luckily, the crowd finally disbursed but it made us acutely aware that sometimes we can’t solve all the problems. We don’t have photos of this because Beni’s family was too busy dealing with the crisis and the safety issues to take photos. This gathering of people wasn’t just because KHEL was giving out food and supplies; Kamli, Beni’s wife, is a City Councilor, a volunteer but full-time position. Their living room is her office. Between KHEL represented by Beni and the city represented by Kamli, many poor people were expecting more aid than was possible to provide. Kamli was finally authorized to give out notes stating that the person holding the note qualified for government aid. They would then have to go to a designated location to get that aid but there just wasn’t enough for everyone.
Around this time, the state government approached Beni, stating that LDA was on their list of places they might commandeer for additional medical staff, turn into a field hospital for the community, or use for other purposes. This wasn’t a request, but we were happy to comply with whatever they required as it was in the best interests of everyone to have a location nearby for the state and city governments to coordinate relief efforts for the community. Even the best intentions can be problematic, however, so over a few days, we emptied the building of important papers, tech equipment, and anything else we wanted to preserve. We left the furniture and fixtures because Beni didn’t have any more space to store KHEL items in his home. During the lockdown there were no guards at LDA. It was imperative that we safeguard our records and equipment. We’ve been lucky that the only thing that was stolen were leaves off the Neem tree. Neem is used in India as an anti-viral medicine. We expect the tree to recover.
By the time we realized that we couldn’t possibly feed everyone who was hungry, a much stricter lockdown order was put in place in Shiv Puri Colony and nobody was allowed to leave their homes. The streets were being patrolled and barricades had been erected across all roads leading out of the community. At that point, we lost touch with the very poor in the community because they don’t have phones, including some of our kids.
We have 265 students. 190 families have smart phones, 58 families have regular phones, and 17 families have no phones. The initial lockdown began just as the school year was ending. Traditionally, many families go to their mountain villages to help with planting crops so already some families weren’t in Dehradun. Some additional families left for their villages when they realized they wouldn’t have jobs. So, there is a large portion of our school population that is currently not in Dehradun and we can’t get in touch with them regardless of whether they have phones or not as cell phone reception and access to reliable electricity are sporadic in the mountains.
We formed a What’s App group to stay in touch with our teachers and other staff and started planning ways to interact with our students. We quickly realized that we could only teach the kids whose families have smart phones, so we focused our energies on developing a plan for that. Each teacher formed a What’s App group with their homeroom students and parents. Nobody has tablets or laptops, including most of our staff. Senior staff are currently using the laptops given to us by our German friends last year. Some of those laptops were still being upgraded for use in India and are not usable until those upgrades are completed. We can’t complete them until it’s safe to take them to our local computer store. In any case, even if our teachers all had laptops they would still have to learn how to teach via smart phone since that’s what our kids have. Our teachers started by just chatting with the students and staying in touch, giving them support. Then our teachers began to give small but fun assignments and also just kept in touch, checking in on the families. Many families asked for aid. We did our best to help them and to put them in touch with the relevant government offices. Just as we got this system in place, the strict lockdown lifted and some parents went back to work, taking with them the only phone in the home. Our teachers made videos to post to their homeroom group so that the kids could look at them when their parents came home from work. Some families have multiple children at LDA which means the phone might have several kids a day needing to use it for schoolwork, and of course parents are using that phone as well.
There was a point when the logistics of what we were trying to accomplish overwhelmed us. We called in an expert, an old friend of the Arya family who lives in Dehradun, Sangita Gairola. She used to be a teacher at Welham’s, a prestigious girls’ school in Dehradun, and is very active in nonprofit work. She has been working with our teachers, giving them advice and putting them in touch with additional resources. Her assistance is ongoing, and we are very grateful to her.
Are the kids doing the work? Some are, and some are enjoying their extended holiday! The kids have many excuses (as well as genuine reasons) not to take part. We’re working on ways to reward those who do take part. When we started engaging our kids via smart phone, most schools weren’t doing anything with their kids. Since there isn’t any guidance yet from the government about distance learning, kids can take part if they want to, or not take part. June will be particularly challenging since the kids are usually on holiday. We recently heard from some of our parents who are very happy with how much we’re doing to keep their kids engaged.
In the midst of all of this, we were worrying how we would continue paying KHEL’s staff. KHEL relies on donations and with most of the world under some form of quarantine, most donations came to a halt. And then we heard from our dear friends in Germany, asking if we needed funds. This was, without doubt, one of the best moments – to know that our core expenses were going to continue being funded meant we could focus on helping our kids get through this rather than on KHEL’s survival. At the moment no schools can charge tuition but must continue to pay teachers. We’re aware of several Dehradun schools that are still charging tuition while doing either nothing or the bare minimum for their students. There are court cases going on already about this. KHEL has decided not to charge anything through September to give families time to recover and may extend that as is necessary. Our tuition is minimal, a token from parents so that they feel invested in their children’s education. This amount ranges from rs50 to rs150 per month (USD0.66-1.98/Euro0.60-1.79), and many parents don’t pay anything.
We have organized academic care packages for all our students in Dehradun and are pleased to be able to give this business to an LDA graduate, Suman Thakur, who started her own stationery shop near LDA. Like all shops in the area, her shop was closed so she was unable to make any money. Our kids don’t have textbooks because the lockdown began at the end of the school year, but we can give them notebooks, pens, paper, crayons for the younger kids, and other supplies to help them stay engaged with their academics and to keep them entertained. Teachers are trying to find digital copies of textbooks, or old textbooks available for purchase, so that they have material to teach the kids. Meanwhile, we continue to engage the children with fun activities such as art competitions.
Bureaucracy continues during a pandemic – we are in the process of LDA’s government mandated registration renewal.
Meanwhile, the fire safety department informed us that we have until the end of June to implement fire safety equipment at LDA. Fire inspectors informed us that we have to have a backup supply of 10,000 liters of water stored on our roof, hoses that drop down from the roof so that gravity can be used to access the water (as opposed to an electricity dependent pump), alarm bells on the school grounds, 5 fire extinguishers (purchased last year), and a CO2 cylinder for the computer room. We put this project on hold during the lockdown, but as some restrictions have been lifted we’re working on this again, as it is a requirement we must meet in order for the kids to come back to school (although we don’t currently know when that will happen). This will cost Rs2,75,000 (USD3,640/Euro3,280).
We’re preparing to start other construction that’s part of our larger plan to upgrade and improve the building for the future. Thanks to one generous donor we have enough funds to prep the grounds for a bathroom addition to the building. We will demolish an unusable portion of the building, dig water and septic tanks, and lay pipelines for water and septic. This work must be done while the kids aren’t at school. Other smaller construction projects will take place concurrently, some of which (like the bathrooms that we still don’t have) are government required changes we must make for the safety and security of our kids and staff. We are pleased to work with two LDA graduates, Rajinder and Zakir, both of whom stayed in the community and started businesses. Outdoor construction is one area where the workers will be able to social distance as much as possible, and we want to help our local businesses get back on their feet. Rajinder has told us that many projects he started before the pandemic haven’t paid him. He’s been buying dry rations like rice and beans out of his own pocket to support his workers through the lockdown. Zakir and his elderly father, our dear friend Ilyaas Ansari, were both under quarantine for 14 days early on in the pandemic but thankfully they were fine. We are, frankly, amazed that we haven’t lost one member of our community to Covid-19. We hope this continues as India opens up and people go back to work.
The last lockdown lifted June 8th. Some businesses have opened with restrictions. Teachers are meeting in small, social distanced groups at LDA with Beni and other senior management in order to work on long term plans. Parents and students will meet with their class teachers in the coming weeks (one class at LDA at a time to prevent crowding). We will provide masks and hand sanitizer. June is normally the month for school holidays, but we will continue to engage our kids, not necessarily with studies but just to stay in touch with them. We don’t know what will happen in July when the kids are supposed to go back to school. Many people in Dehradun don’t want to go out regardless of what sort of lockdown is in place.
The grounds at LDA have been used a couple of times by the government for rations distribution to poor people in the community.
We’re really proud of KHEL’s staff. Everyone is working in the best interests of our kids, figuring out new systems on the fly and working together via What’s App with the same commitment they have when they work face to face at LDA. Shout out to Beni who is the best General Manager ever!
We’re also really proud of our kids’ families. Parents are working closely with teachers in a way they’ve never had to before, they’re stepping up to make sure their kids stay involved with their studies as much as is possible, and they’re also learning new phone skills like taking and sending photos and videos.
And our kids. O, our magnificent, amazing, resilient children! There are no words for the overflowing love and pride we have for them as they share their schoolwork, their artwork, their enthusiastic videos, and their beautiful smiles with us via What’s App.
Thank you to everyone who is making it possible to continue supporting our community through a global pandemic, two cyclones and a plague of locusts in India, and worldwide protests. Can this year get any weirder, or worse? We really don’t know. But thanks to you all we’ll still be here, trying every which way to educate these kids.
Stay well, stay safe,
Stomya Arya Persaud