Wednesday, January 28, 2015

A project of love in Tamil Nadu - The Jared Scott Miller Library

GPM is honored to be involved and assist in the creation of the The Jared Scott Miller Library - a project of love in living memory of Jared Scott Miller, while providing a central educational resource for children of all ages and their families living in the villages of Tamil Nadu, India.

When Cheryl and Paul Miller of Cleveland, Ohio were considering ways to honor their son Jared, who tragically died in 2013 at age of 34, they knew that the project must involve helping the children in Tamil
Nadu, India. Jared loved the Tamil language, he loved books, and he loved working with children of all ages. Jared’s parents, with the help of Gabriel Project Mumbai and the special people at the New Colors Children Educational Center in Tamil Nadu, brought Jared’s interests and loves together in establishing a new children’s library. The Jared Scott Miller Library, stocked with Tamil and English language books was opened in August 2014 on the New Color campus in Edayanchavady (population 5,000+), a local village in Auroville, Tamil Nadu, India. Currently, this is a very small intermediate library with major plans to build a permanent structure in the very near future so more children in the surrounding villages will be able to enjoy the library. People from all walks of life are helping the Millers fulfill their dream to build this library. Members of their synagogue, family and friends, Tamil expats living in Ohio and even strangers, all  are contributing to this wonderful educational project. The Jared Scott Miller Library, when built, will be a dominant and vibrant educational center for thousands of children - a wonderful tribute to Jared.

Read more about the project and Paul & Cheryl Miller’s moving testimony of their son, Jared’s life HERE

To donate to the library, click HERE.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

New GPM-JDC Indian Jewish internship cohort with a twist!

GPM welcomes the new cohort of six GPM-JDC Indian Jewish interns – with a twist. Three of the interns are from the Jewish Youth Pioneers, ages 18-23, just like all the past Jewish Indian interns. However, the other three volunteers are from an unexpected demographic: adult, mid-career , over the age of 40, Indian Jewish women  who have all developed a passion and burning interest in changing direction in the lives by helping children in the slums in various ways. The GPM-JDC internship gives them that opportunity and aims to support them in every way possible.

And there is one more unprecedented aspect of this cohort: One of the women is doing the internship with her son.  Annie Jacob, who has had a successful career as an HR professional and is active in the Jewish community, is now an intern along with her 20-year-old son, Ronel Jacob. “This is a great opportunity for us to give back to society,” Ms. Jacob said.

The cohort, which also includes Seema Dhokarkar, Shulamith Ashton, Meir Killekar, and Ivan Kasookar, began their internship in the beginning of January. In the context of the three-month internship, the interns dedicate 10-15 hours per week providing educational support to the children in the slums via informal education, hygiene programs, fun days, outings to museums, and more.

This week, for example, the interns took 31 children from the Suman Nagar slum to the Nehru Science Center to study the human body. The learned about healthy habits and hygiene, watched a movie, conducted experiments, all in a fun and educational atmosphere. The previous week, the topic of the week was courtesy and manners. The interns took 30 children from the slum to a public park in Hiranandani Gardens, Powai, where they conducted activities and games in nature teaching social skills and culture. 

Nikita Worlikar, a former intern who was so enthralled by the program that has taken on the volunteer role of internship coordinator, is thrilled about the new cohort. “This is an incredible group of people,” she said, “who bring a wealth of life experience and perspective to the important work that we’re doing. I’m so happy to have everyone on board.”

Interview with Leya Elias, new co-Program Coordinator at Gabriel Project Mumbai

Leya Elias, the new co-Program Coordinator at Gabriel Project Mumbai (GPM) has achieved some
remarkable accomplishments – and she is only 23 years old. She brings not only a Master’s Degree in Public Relations and Corporate Communication, professional experience in the world of PR, fluency in four languages, and a host of different volunteer experiences around India, but also a warm eloquence and deep sense of care and commitment for the children of India. We spoke to her about her ideas coming into this new job.

Welcome to GPM! How is it going so far?

I’m having lots and lots of fun at GPM! While getting aquinted with our work at GPM, I’m spending my days teaching the kids not only in the Kalwa slum but elsewhere in Mumbai as well. I sit with the children every day. I work with them as classroom support, as an intern. We conduct sessions so that everyone gets a chance to interact one-on-one.  They are excited, and very eager to learn. Whatever we teach them, they absorb very quickly. It’s such a great experience, and I’m very happy to be doing something really productive with them and they are enjoying it.
Yesterday, for example, we went to a science museum, learning about the human body. There was a working model of a body that they could touch and feel. They were very engaged, and they also knew a lot about the topic, and were eager to share with us what they already knew. They were very impressive and it was a lot of fun. They ask lots of questions, and are very active and enthusiastic. When I was in school, I never asked questions, I just listened and took notes. This is a much more quality education that they can be alive and active and engaged It’s a great experience.

What is the best part of this experience with the children?

It’s great to see how much the children gain from being with the volunteers. In Kalwa, where we go daily, children want to come to class just to be with the volunteers. They get pretty excited when volunteers say, ‘I’m from England’ or ‘I’m from Australia’. They ask tons of questions, like, ‘What holidays do you have?’ or ‘What foods do you eat?’. They gain so much from these interactions. By the end of the volunteer period, the children are begging the volunteers to come back.
It’s actually amazing that they connect so deeply despite the language barrier. There are people from different part of the country, so we talk in Hindi and some Maharashtra. I speak Marathi, Hindi, English, Malayalam, and now Hebrew.
The children develop a huge emotional connection with the volunteers that helps motivate them to want to learn and grow and engage with the world. It’s not just the food that GPM gives, or the information that we transmit. It’s the emotional connection that they need in their lives. That’s what a lot of the kids come back to school for.  The volunteers give them a lot of attention and care, which is a great thing. The volunteers are very calm and loving. They are all so happy to see smiling faces. Every day, we go for the smiles. 

Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?

I am 23 years old. I was born in Kerala, in Cochin. I did my undergrad studies there, but for my master’s degree in Public Relations and Corporate Communications, I came to Mumbai. I was working for year in PR. I did the GPM internship that year, and I was introduced to what GPM does and this job came along and I was just thrilled. I used to volunteer in another organization teaching English to children twice a week. I wanted to do something that – like my father always tells me – shares a little bit of information with the children and makes a big difference in their lives.  That’s what I’m doing and I couldn’t be happier. Now I’m a full-time here, which is like a big blessing for me and I feel really proud.

What is your long-term vision for the kids?

I want to see more and more kids to go to school, have an education that will help them I the future, that will help them live a better life, to give them a better understanding of the world. Education is such an important part of life, and will make a difference for them.

What are some of the challenges?

They need the push from their parents. But sometimes the parents are stuck in survival mode and think that school a waste of time, they should just get a job. But there is so much more to the education than just learning. It’s also hygiene and social issues
It’s especially hard for the daughters because parents often think that girls’ education is a waste of time. That’s a big mistake. In Mumbai, you can see a lot of girls working on the street or not going to school, and that’s really a problem. Girls can impact the entire society. There’s a Chinese saying, “When you teach something to a woman, you teach the whole family, the whole society.” It’s so important for girls to stay in school. I want to see more girls coming to school.  

What’s the Jewish community in Mumbai like?

I was born in a Jewish family – my mother is from Mumbai and my father is from Kerala (Cochin). There are very few Jews left in Cochin – only 29 left, most over the age of 50, and nobody to marry. When my father was ready to get married, he went to Mumbai to learn Mechanical Draftsmanship in ORT. He met my mother who was about to go to Israel, but then he proposed to her and they decided to get married and stay in India. My mother moved to Kerala. The Cochin Jewish community is very small, and is in a very bad state. The past two years it’s been hard to get a minyan for the festivals, so we bring in a rabbi and get some foreigners to get a minyan. In Mumbai it’s different – there are 4,500 Jews here and lots of synagogues and activities. But still, it could get to have problems like Cochin because people are moving away from the religion. The JCC and JDC in India are working really hard for the community with events and activities and bringing the Jewish community together. JDC really helps me meet other Jews in Mumbai and now I have lots of friends and peers. I’m also in the Jewish Youth Pioneers Program (JYP) where we have youth activities all year round – sports activities and holidays and also Khai Fest where we raise money for the Jewish youth activities and kids’ education. We also have talent shows and it’s a lot of fun. It’s fun and my father is happy that I’m getting involved in the community – even though he wants me to make Aliyah! But I really like my job right now. Maybe after this job we’ll see, maybe I will make Aliyah. But my father tells me that I would have a much better future in Israel. But I have to see, I’m not sure.

What message would you like to send to potential volunteers around the world?

They should put their hearts into sharing themselves with these children, not just their knowledge but their whole selves, their passion. The kids need that connection. They need to hear about you. If you have that passion, you’ll own the class. It will be great.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Deb's teaching the children with GPM

GPM-JDC Entwine Fall 2014 volunteer Debra Feinberg writes this poignant account about her experiences teaching children in the slums.

For weeks I haven't been able to quiet my mind enough to sit and write about my experience here in India [as a GPM volunteer], but suddenly, I'm ready. Sure, I've jotted the occasional story about the madness of Mumbai, but I haven't shared what I'm really doing here...I haven't told you about my everyday routine where I wake up, catch a cab to the train station, take a 45 minute ride to a place so far off the beaten tourist path that when I step off the platform at my stop, everyone around looks in awe wondering, “What is she doing here?” More than once, a motherly figure has placed a hand on my shoulder to say, "Are you sure this is your stop?" Really, she is saying, "I don't think you want to be getting off here." ...I do.

“Here,” is Kalwa, the slum where I'm teaching. The people here are starting to expect us now...Us, being me and the other GPM fellows. Each day, we get off the train amidst a sea of brown's hard not to stand out. Somehow, word has spread that we are the teachers and in knowing our role, people accept our presence. The young rickshaw drivers outside the station eye us up and down and nudge one another, sharing comments that would probably leave me blushing if my Hindi was up to par; locals study us as we pass by, curiosity burning in their eyes. Many are quick to smile and say 'hello,' or 'good morning' and some even stick their hand out for a handshake or jump the gun with, "Hello, I am fine," before I've even had a chance to pose the question, "How are you?"

Always, I make my way to the small shed at the station entrance and look for my two familiar faces: Haley and Jacob. I suppose the best way to describe seeing them is to compare it to when I turn onto my childhood street and see the tunnel of trees that leads to my home; there's a comfort in the familiarity of the sight, and I know when I see those trees I'm back where I belong. When the crowd parts and I see Jacob and Haley, it's the same feeling, that this is where I'm meant to be. Haley is our on-site coordinator and translator while Jacob, a former consulate guard, serves as our security. Though I've yet to feel any discomfort in Kalwa, Jacob's broad shouldered frame serves as a comfort that, should a situation arise, he's got our backs.

After a big hug for Haley and a few minutes of silly gossip, we split into our teams to head to our respective classrooms. David, our other translator and security joins my team, while Haley and Jacob head off with Elana's. David is a jokester best compared to the naughty kid on the playground who likes to see how many people he can provoke before someone scolds him. According to him, I look like a Bollywood superstar Bipasha Basu, Bips for short. David also thinks of himself as a Bollywood star and even introduces himself to people as the famous Salman Khan...he's ridiculous, but the kids love him, and admittedly, when he starts busting out dance moves, it's pretty epic.

A ten minute walk with David along a busy dirt road leads us to what should be a walking path but also serves as a garbage dump, open air restroom, makeshift playground for the local children and game park filled with donkeys, wild pigs, goats, cows, chickens and hungry dogs. As we walk, the girls and I hash out the final details of our lesson plan, dodge fresh fecal matter - human and animal - turn our heads away from men dropping their drawers mere feet from us - though as soon as I turn away from one, my eyes happen upon another - and stop every few feet to shake hands with local children who have peeked in our classrooms and know we are the teachers.

As we head deeper into the slum, we pass naked children playing in garbage, sari'd women carrying baskets of food on their heads (often with a baby also in their arms), young men who, in the absence of owning workhorses or oxen, pull and push heavy loads on makeshift carts - manual labor in its purest form - and well groomed men in nice collared shirts and pressed pants heading to work for the day...You see, poverty is subjective, and the people who live in the slums include many hardworking individuals with real jobs, limited by their salaries, not their ambition.

When we walk past a shopkeeper I've dubbed "Buddha" (for his meditative posture and oversized belly) and the cluster of hormone driven teenage boys who linger just past his stand, I know we are almost there. One last turn past a group of kids sorting plastics brings us to our classroom, a metal shack only distinct from the surrounding slum homes because of the large number of beat up children’s shoes resting outside the classroom door. I slip off my sandals and add them to the pile.

Our "classroom" is actually the one room home of one of my students, Suresh. Education is a priority to his parents, so each day they open their home as a pop up classroom to provide a learning space for Suresh and thirty plus children from the neighboring homes. Think about the trust, commitment and love for community they must have to do everyday vacate their home with all their worldly possessions, invite in a teacher and enough students to fill every open space on the floor and just have faith that their home won't be a wreck when they return. The depth of my admiration and respect for this young couple is beyond words...
My students span in age from four to thirteen and have a range of ability levels. Each student in this little room has all the potential in the world, but here in Kalwa, survival takes precedence to potential. If a student's family is out of water, the child isn't coming to school, he's spending the day carrying buckets of water to his home. If a younger sibling needs to be cared for and mommy and daddy are out hustling, the baby needs watching... Essentially, when push comes to shove, if the foundations of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs aren't being met, education takes a backseat, and in the slums, many kids are losing out on critical learning years.

To counter this, the project I am here with incentivized families to send their children to school by offering students who attend class with a nutritious meal. Not only does food motivate students to learn, it creates new jobs and revenue for the community, from which eighteen women were hired and given a kitchen where they prepare the meals for the kids - now, these women are becoming entrepreneurs, cooking for the students by day, and running a catering business by night. Once a week I join these women in their kitchen before class and they allow me a glimpse into the effort put forth to prepare daily meals for over six hundred children in a rustic slum kitchen - between the heat from their primitive burners and the lack of prep space, what they accomplish is a miracle!

These meals help draw the brightest of personalities into my who are not only hungry for food, but anything I can teach. Sure, there are still the 'naughty kids' and teacher's pet types of every classroom, but here, it's not each kid for his/her self...every child wants every other child to succeed...and that's pretty special.

Laxmi, Manita, Suresh, Pawan, Krishna, Srinivas (Babu), Arif, Muskan, Preeti, Rahul...the kids are as unique as their names. Each morning as I slip my shoes off outside the classroom door, I listen to them finish up their morning national anthem, excitedly eying me and speeding up the words as they register my presence, just so the second they are done they can jump to attention to greet me with a spirited chorus of, "Good morning Teacher!" It gets me smiling every time :-)

Once the kids settle back onto their mats on the floor - no seats or desks in here - it's time to begin. The lessons range in topic, but we try to make mini units each week that build on a certain concept, skill or idea: Telling Time, Verbalizing Feelings, Inventions and Creative Thinking, The Experimental Process... anything to break these kids away from their daily lessons in rote memorization. Something like creative thinking may sound abstract, but for a kid who has previously been taught every lesson with,"mire peeche bolo" (Hindi, for: "Repeat after me"), skills like learning to find the answers in oneself, think outside the box and dare to be wrong are hard to come by. When children are taught to learn by repetition only, they come to believe that there is only one right answer for everything...when they are actually challenged to think for themselves, the answers are suddenly endless - and that's not something that can be taught in one day - it's like rewiring a robot - until eventually, something clicks into place.

Over the past two months, I've had the pleasure of watching some of these transformations begin...there's a light that comes on in kids' eyes and I can see the wheels churning in their minds as they create answers, rather than spit back something they were told. It's true that there are also days when the kids don't get something - with language and culture barriers, such moments are inevitable - but those days push me to become a better teacher, to figure out where the lack of understanding begins and what needs to be said or done to take a kid from confusion to clarity. Sometimes, I can figure out the issue in the moment and find a new way to teach the material, other times the girls and I spend the walk between our first class and second class reflecting on what went wrong. The thing is, teaching isn't about doing the lesson on the agenda, it's about doing a lesson that actually results in learning, and these bumps in the road have forced me to become a teacher capable of adapting to the situation at hand.

The day isn't done with my first class though, and as soon as I've slipped my sandals on, it's back to the walkway to head to my next group of kids. Along the ten minute route I pass another cast of characters...The old lady who stands in her doorway watching the world as she brushes her teeth...with her finger; the sugarcane man prepping his stalks for juicing; the 'wall kids' behind him who use a broken wall as their personal jungle gym and always pause to shout, "Teacher! Teacher!" ; Fat, hairy pigs bathing in garbage, feces and mud; Mothers washing their screaming children with a cloth and pail of cold water; Boys playing cricket in a field of garbage...the list goes on and on. Here, my second group of students live along the railroad tracks, and as I follow the path to the shack that is my classroom, my eyes dance from person to person going about their routines....this is life for them.

When I reach my class, my favorite student steps out the room to greet me - and yes, teachers have favorites! Manish (see above) is special, a born leader. One of the oldest in my class, I dream for Manish because here is a kid who, with the right mentorship, could take on the world; but, I also fear for Manish, because when he gets too old for this classroom, what will happen to him? It kills me to think that this kid who emanates, even radiates, potential, will lose the light within him because of the circumstances into which he was born, robbed of the opportunity to thrive out of a need to survive. This is the injustice of the slums.

Forty other children also await me inside that small classroom, and each of them has something incredibly special to offer the world as well. These children emit an energy like a magnetic force that pulls me into the classroom. "Teacher! Teacher! "Good morning Debbie Teacher!" "Teacher, me!" Their hunger to learn is palpable.

Never in my life have I felt such joy in arriving to 'work,' which begs the question: What makes this experience different from all others? It's not that I haven't loved my past jobs (or at least aspects of them)- in fact, I miss my students from Charlotte everyday, and rarely does a time pass when I'm not reminded of a beloved patient in Miami - but here, not a day goes by that I don't feel I get back as much - if not more - as I'm giving...and because these children with so little to give fill my heart with so much, everyday I am challenged to push myself to give everything I can, not because I have to, but because I want to. For that reason, teaching in the slums is not hard work, but heart work. Sure, lesson planning takes time, teaching takes energy and a non-air conditioned classroom can leave anyone drained, but from the moment I enter the room to a chorus of "Good morning teacher!" to the last hug and handshake I get walking out the door, my heart is full, and there's no paycheck that can give the same feeling.

Prior to embarking on this journey, I had moments of fear that, somehow, by giving up my apartment, my job, my car, time with friends and family and all my possessions except what fits in my backpack, I might miss out on "real life;" that in pursuing this idealistic whim of mine, I'd somehow lose out on a crucial year in my life - lord knows my mother would love me to meet a nice Jewish boy, get a ring and pop out a grandchild, and how does that happen when bouncing to a new country every few months!?-...But instead, this year has shown me what 'real life' is in its purest and most beautiful form, and I find myself with the fullest heart and happier than I've ever been.

Each day, I come to Kalwa, supposedly the teacher, bearing lesson plans, hopes, dreams and wishes for the children I teach, but what that will ultimately get my students, I'm not sure... On the other hand, unknowingly, Kalwa and it's beautiful cast of characters have become my teachers, showing me what selflessness looks like, leadership in the face of adversity, ingenuity in spite of resources and above all, contentedness for what one has, not what one doesn't. These lessons will leave Kalwa with me - irrespective of the room in my backpack- allowing me to experience the world going forward through a new and brighter lens. Though I can't put Manish or any of my other students on a fast track path to a life beyond the slums, I'll leave them knowing the impact a fresh pair of lenses is having on my life, and hope that maybe, just maybe, something I said or did throughout my time in the slums will allow them to see the world differently going forward as well...even if that is simply the ability to think beyond the idea of only one 'right answer.'

"The rest," as it's said, "is still unwritten..."

Taking a break from teaching

It reminded me of the scene in “The Life of Brian” when preachers standing in the town square attempted to convince passersby about their ideologies.  Okay, so this was no town square two thousand years ago, the preachers were not fanatical men with long white beards and this was definitely not downtown ancient Jerusalem. These “preachers” were five young women, volunteers and staff of our program, standing in the garbage strewn field in the middle  of a Mumbai slum. And although the scene was a little unorthodox, their message was anything but amusing: they were trying to convince children to come to class instead of being involved in child labor.

The event was an impromptu and heartfelt attempt to address the heart of the problems that children face in the slums of Mumbai. Day after day, GPM staff and volunteers walk through the slums on their way to teach informal education to the children in the slums who attend school at REAP. On their journeys, they invariably pass by hundreds of children outside of class. And many of them, sadly, are working. Even children as young as four or five years old can be seen sifting through garbage for discarded “merchandise” – pieces of plastic or metal that someone might buy for a few rupees. (Anyone who has read Behind the Beautiful Forevers is familiar with this tragedy.) Last week, during a one-hour break between the classes they taught, volunteers and staff decided that they wanted to do something about this: they took it upon themselves to spend the break to try and persuade these children to join the classes and receive an education. They marched out into the center of the slums during the heat of the day and began their real hard work of convincing children to go to school.
Leya, Rose, Bassie and Debra talking with the children in the slums
The women approached children, the ones sifting through garbage, and told them that by going to school they would receive a hot nutritious meal every day. The woman approached children who were working as rag pickers and sewage cleaners, and stressed how valuable a good education was for their futures. They approached children who were sitting down on the street, and emphasized how much fun they would have in class.

Dozens of children listened and joked with the GPM staff and volunteers, but the work was not easy. The women had some doubts. Can they really convince children involved in child labor who bring a few cents a month to their starving families to sacrifice all that for the long term ideal of an education? Can they convince a group of kids that society has continuously designated as beyond hope that they indeed do have a chance at a brighter future? Was this one hour dedicated to recruiting children in the slums to come to school just an act of futility? These were some of the questions asked by staff members and volunteers later in the day.

After the weekend staff and volunteers returned to teaching. They were told that four new students enrolled over the weekend.

One hour, four futures… 
asking questions about school

Welcome to class