Food for Life School, etc.
Dec 28, 2011
|At the school, blue-uniformed children between ages 4 to 10 were everywhere and though there were teachers, there was an enormous chaotic energy. The children were playing and laughing and seemed to be getting ready for something.
We went to meet the person I had only corresponded with by e-mail due to our mutual friend, Kurt’s introduction. She had been the person to arrange our ride from the airport and our stay at the ashram. Sri Rhadika met us as three cups of chai were brought to us by an older woman. We drank the tea and discussed Kurt, who they both revered highly, and the school… what it was… how big it was… and learned things that blew our minds.
The school, Food for Life School, is comprised of about 1400 children at this time, 1300 of whom are sponsored by outsiders to be there. It is broken into two locations, one for the littles called Sandipani Muni and one for the older children.
The children, from all over the neighborhood, are clothed, fed twice and sometimes three times a day, and temporarily lifted out of their lives of often extreme poverty to learn to read and write and do math. Some have been doing fulltime work, are abused by their families or neighbors, and have not experienced childhood until they walk into the Sandipani School.
The children have dance, sewing, music, and art classes as well. They are given a place to play and learn and socialize where they don’t have to do the work of adults or have the life of difficulty that would make such learning impossible.Some of the children are bused to the school, some walk alone or with a sibling, and some are brought by a parent.
One of the most striking things about the place for us as visitors was the energy… not just children running around and playing… but the loving and affectionate interest they showed us and the genuine respect they showed their teachers. In addition, every child we saw at both schools, seemed to be joyfully engaged in whatever the activity was that they were involved in… a game of tag, learning to embroider, dancing on the stage to loud, raucous recorded music, serving their classmates’ lunches.
We got to eat lunch with the children, which was a total trip. Lunch takes place in the open courtyard on the concrete floor. For that matter, school breakfasts and dinners take place there as well. Long, long strips of woven cloth about a foot or two wide are rolled out and we, like our student friends, were seated on the cloth. Tin trays were placed on the cloth before us and the first server came by with a pail of pakoras, doling out one per tray. Then came a girl with a pail of potato and tomato and all kinds of deliciousness stew of some kind… maybe a masala… that she spooned carefully onto our tray. Finally came one more girl with a pail of pickles for each tray. Spoons? Forks? Chopsticks? Nope. We all ate with our hands; teachers and students alike.
Any western cafeteria staff worker would be appalled by the fact that there was there was less mess than any western school cafeteria at the end of the meal and every child cleaned their plate. Of course, maybe because it is the way they are raised to eat without utensils in India, but there was no “playing” with the food. Much socializing, back and forth banter, during the meal, but it was all business. This food was precious.
Once the children were finished with their food, they rose and took their plates to the washing area where they rinsed them and put the trays to be washed. Then they went to wash their hands and go back to play before more class.
On Monday, the day of our arrival, we spent our time at the Sandipani Muni School, which is made of the younger children. Then on Tuesday, we visited the older kids’ school which required a bumpy, horn-honking motorized rickshaw ride.
On the way to the older kids’ school, we visited we visited the Food For Life’s free hospital, their cow-helping stables, and their papermaking facility.
The hospital was built where there had been nothing at all… just barren ground. And what we stood in was a building that looked as if it had always been there. Plus, it was clean and inviting.
We went from there to the cow stables where Food For Life takes sick and injured cows off the streets of Vrindavan to help them heal, and in some cases, to die. We were told by an Australian woman who works with the cows that with the massive influx of cars and industry and western ideas, cows have come to symbolize, for some Indians, a backwards, primitive way of life that is no longer appropriate in our modern, technological, and industrialized world. So, when someone hits a cow with their car, someone who in the past might have done all in their power to take care of this animal who is sacred in Hinduism, they have taken more and more to ignoring their action and leaving the cow to fend for themselves. It is these cows that Food For Life has taken in and nurtured to health or into their transition out of life. All the cow workers were so gentle with the cows. And for all but one of the cows, who happened to be severely injured in its leg, their affections were returned. The cows were kind of like a combination of a kitten and an older dog, it seemed. They loved their necks scratched and would amble up and nudge you for attention. We were told that some of the cows had arrived traumatized but with the attentions and food and safety they received in the stables, they would usually come back to their softer nature.
We left the cow stables to see the recycled papermaking facility where three people were shredding used paper and some old fabric into pulp and turning it into stunningly beautiful paper books, lampshades, bowls, keepsake boxes, money boxes, pads, and so many other things.
After the papermaking, we went to the older kids’ school.
The Food for Life School only started ten or eleven years ago, so the school goes up to eleventh grade at this time. There are not yet any graduates. However, there are 8 scholarships in place for Food for Life students at a fine university where graduates will attend if they are qualified. This, in my mind, was the icing on the cake. A child who had nothing from the very beginning, with the help of this place, could learn everything they would need to get themselves to a place where there were not only options for them, but THEN, with a scholarship available, they would have a real possibility of accessing those options.
When we arrived at the olders’ school, we were lucky to have come during the practical display of the Home Science class.
We were seated at small tables with tablecloths and girls sitting around small cow-dung fires heating pots and pans of food served us most delicious morsels of pakora, dahl, chapatti, and other who knows what yummies. We were waited on as if we were in a restaurant and the mood was festive and jolly. This all took place in the main courtyard in front of the stage where boys danced Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk,” and did acrobatics to blaring music.
This tour, of the hospital, cows, papermaking, and now school, was all possible with Sri Rhadika’s guidance. She sat at the table with us eating the lovely meal and then asked if we were ready for lunch. LUNCH? We thought we had just HAD lunch. With Hopper and Zephyr there, though, we couldn’t pass it up… of course, had I been alone, I wouldn’t have passed it up either, but growing boys provide a great excused for frivolous eating, so off we went, thanking the Home Science girls for our tasty “snack.”
We ate our lunch the same way we’d eaten it the day before with the littles at the Sandipani Muni School, seated on the ground before our trays, using our hands, and giggling at the intrigued children watching us.
The meal done, and Hopper stuffed, since his “no more, thank you,” had been ignored and a third helping had been piled on his tray, we got into the motorized rickshaw and headed back to the Sandipani Muni School (this is the other part of the school) where we got internet access and were able to hook into our e-mail and connect with our friends.