Southeast Asia

trek for literacy – room to read india

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We marched onto the school grounds to the beat of a drum and trumpet. There we were adorned with garlands of flowers, newspaper hats made by the students and marks on our foreheads. The entire village had come to watch, as if we were stars on the red carpet.

It wasn’t until we stepped into the classroom and were met by a resounding “Namaste” that I came floating back to reality. As we took turns introducing ourselves, I told the girls that I like to surf, which was loosely translated as “playing in the water.” I later realized we were the first foreigners these girls had ever seen, and how vastly different our worlds must seem.

When I interacted with the scholars in a small group, I learned that each wanted to be either a teacher or policewoman when she grew up. Curious, I asked why and got an insightful and direct response from one of the girls: “Because they can affect change.” In this tiny village where most people make a living in agriculture, policemen and teachers are seen as authority figures with reputable careers. In this particular school, the headmaster and teachers are all male. I was stunned that, in a world where most girls never advance past 8th grade, each girl here had hope in her eyes and the aspiration to break the status quo.

I asked to learn a Hindi word, and was taught “home” and “work.” Just by this casual interaction, it was evident that family is central to the lives of people in this village, and even a 10-year-old girl has to work incredibly hard to help out. For one girl, this meant waking up early every morning to fetch water from the well. When it came time to go to school, her parents would tell her to just stay home and finish her chores. She would beg to leave, sometimes just running to school to seek refuge; she was that determined to continue her education, with or without their support.

Despite the factors against them, these girls are determined to improve their circumstances, and Room to Read has helped tremendously. We played a life skills game with an older age group, covering everything from how AIDS is contracted, to the effects of puberty, to how to be an effective communicator. These were very progressive and sensitive subjects, but the girls’ confidence shone. When asked if they wanted to finish secondary school, every single head nodded “yes” with enthusiasm.

As a chapter leader, I felt blessed and humbled by the Chapter Leader Trek—not only by seeing our work, but seeing how these girls fight daily for things we take for granted. Attending this trip reaffirmed my desire to make a difference in the world, and after seeing the success of Room to Read’s work with my own eyes, I’m confident we’re doing just that. I was awestruck by the children’s zest for learning, undeniable courage, and perseverance to gain an education; I will share their story for years to come. Although we were treated as honored guests and thanked profusely by the community for our efforts, the true stars of the village were right there all along.

This post was featured on the Room to Read blog on January 13, 2010.

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