Q&A with Iona-Jane Harris, Director, Educate for Life
I came across Educate for Life a couple of years ago and seeing the amazing work they do to provide education, healthcare and community services in an extremely deprived rural community in Rajhasthan, I wanted to get involved. Just two years in to their fundraising they built a school in Bakhel, which over 700 children have been through so far, and through local partners they also provide a free health clinic service and health programmes for the whole community, using the school as a hub.
They caught my eye, not least because of my own connection to Rajasthan, but because they genuinely respond this community’s needs and the difference they have made to their daily lives is incredible. I spoke with Iona-Jane Harris, the director at Educate for Life, to find out their story ahead of my latest auction for the charity over at Om Baby
Tell us about how Educate for Life started?
Educate for Life started as the shared vision of two friends, Akshay and Ed, who met at university in 2003, both dreaming of building a school for a deprived community in India. The charity came into being in 2005. Two years later, after a successful ‘coppers for classrooms’ crowdfunding appeal, and some intense construction work, the doors to Hunar Ghar School opened, welcoming 60 children, the very first in their families to go to school.
Why is Bakhel in India so important to the charity?
In 2006, Akshay and Ed met a number of different potential partners in Rajasthan in India. They chose to work with Rajasthan Bal Kalyan Samiti (RBKS), an NGO committed to serving deprived rural communities, with expertise in education. RBKS took Akshay and Ed to meet different rural community leaders to understand their needs and wishes. The message from the Bakhel community was loud and clear – a school for our children.
What have you achieved so far?
I think one of the most important things that we have achieved, is to have the trust of the Bakhel community. Before the existence of Hunar Ghar School, parents, who have never attended school themselves, didn’t send their children to school because they saw no point in them going to an institution which was regularly closed or had no teachers present. In contrast, Hunar Ghar School is an amazing and welcoming learning environment. It is fully staffed, always open, well-resourced and focused on the needs of its students. Today, there are multiple classrooms, a school library, a digital learning space, a health room, staff room and kitchen facilities. School places are in high demand and each year, with over 400 children are enrolled. Not only do they all receive a good education, including extra-curricular experiences, they also get breakfast and lunch each day and have a close eye kept on their health and well-being. Over 700 children aged between four and fourteen have now benefitted from the school since it opened.
For the past four years, nearly all final year students have chosen to continue their studies at secondary level. This year, some of the very first Hunar Ghar students are going to start tertiary studies. These children are incredible role models. They are the change that we aspire to bring about within the community. They are making their own informed choices about their futures and they are inspiring younger generations of learners in Bakhel to follow in their footsteps.
What has the establishment of Hunar Ghar School meant to the community?
Families in Bakhel live below the poverty line. Most have no electricity or running water in their homes, which are extremely basic dwellings. Over 80% of adults haven’t been to school and the community literacy rate is just 20%. However, the community is no different from us in wanting the best for their children. By establishing a well-run school, we have demonstrated that we believe in and value their needs and wishes. We have confirmed that children growing up in Bakhel have an equal right to education. We ensure that community members are involved in the ongoing development of the school, and they take real pride in their association with Hunar Ghar and what their children are able to achieve. Recently, some children from the school took part in a regional sports tournament and one child went on to be selected to play at state level. One parent commented “Children have been given a big platform”. It means that children themselves have growing self-belief in what they can achieve and have aims to become teachers, doctors, nurses and police officers, breaking free from the cycle of inter-generational rural poverty their families have been trapped in for generations.
What other projects are you involved in as part of Educate for Life?
We believe that education and healthcare go hand in hand. We work with partners to provide health and community development services, using Hunar Ghar as a hub. This includes Safe Motherhood and Safe Childhood Programmes to support pregnant women and mothers and their young children until they reach school age. Not only are children getting off to a healthier start in life, but, since these programmes started, the under-five mortality rate in the community has nearly halved.
Good health is critical to good learning. While children are at Hunar Ghar, they are part of a child health programme, which means that their growth and development is monitored, they are kept up to date with all their vaccinations and receive vitamins and iron supplements, as well as regular anti-parasitic medication. Girls at Hunar Ghar are invited to take part in yoga and mindfulness sessions, to raise awareness of the importance of good mental health.
We have a mobile clinic service which regularly visits the community to provide free professional healthcare to all. About fifty community members attend the clinic each time it visits. We also ensure that the community benefits from annual dental and eye health camps.
Students graduating from Hunar Ghar need support to transition into and complete their secondary education elsewhere. We are involved in a project to support children attending two nearby government secondary schools, which are under-funded and under-resourced.
What are the charity's plans for the future?
We’d like to provide more support to Hunar Ghar graduates and to pre-school age children. About 50% of children who start at Hunar Ghar have language delay and this has a big impact on their learning. Much of a child’s future success is determined before they have even set foot in a classroom and we plan to develop some additional pre-school interventions to address this.
Bakhel is one of many rural communities in India which face similar challenges. Educate for Life decided to focus on one community and to demonstrate what is possible if you listen, provide adequate resources for health and education and believe in the ability of children to learn, if given the right support. We hope that Hunar Ghar School will inspire others involved
in the provision of education in rural areas. We have resources that can be used and adopted.
How did you come to work with Om Baby?
A couple of years ago, Alice contacted us to find out about our work and I shared details of our projects with her. Hunar Ghar is situated in Rajasthan, the same state where Alice sources her block prints from, and we clicked! We are delighted and humbled to benefit from Om Baby’s support – it means a lot to us that Om Baby is championing our cause, and helping us to create happier and healthier childhoods in Rajasthan.
How can people get involved?
We are a small charity and do not pay for any advertising. So please have a look at our website and tell others about us! Support Alice and take part in her amazing auctions, which raise funds for us and give you beautiful handprinted garments to enjoy! If you feel inspired to do your own fundraising, feel free to get in touch with me to share your ideas or for help. Every penny goes a long way in Bakhel...For example, it costs just £5 to provide a whole class of Hunar Ghar children with a healthy nutritious school lunch, filling empty tummies and helping concentration in class. Be part of the change we want to see… educateforlife.org.uk