The future of a school for under-privileged children in Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh depends on an Englishman who is now driving to it from London and had reached as far as Turket by early January.
The 'Good Karma' Journey
The ‘Good Karma’ Journey
The story really begins in 2006 with a chance encounter between Celia Puthenpura, a nun who runs the school and Caroline Sami, the head of London-based Idology, a consulting firm and a practicing Buddhist.
A chance meeting between a London-based real estate developer and entrepreneur and the chief executive of a communications and training consultancy who also happens to be a practising Buddhist, has resulted in an extraordinary global fund-raising programme to bankroll a school for under-privileged children, being run by villagers in the tiny hill town of Dharamshala in northern India.
From 1 December, 2007, 30-year Jonny Knowles, who used to redevelop London warehouses into plush apartments and now runs Wishes-in-the Sky, a company that imports and sells Chinese flying lanterns, has been criss-crossing the globe on road, spreading the word about the St. Mary’s school at Dharamshala in Himachal Pradesh. Till a fortnight ago, Knowles was accompanied by a team of three -- Michelle Attala, a documentary press photographer; Simon Buck, a well-known mural artist; and Mark Tarling, a disc jockey who runs his own training company for aspiring disc jockeys.
The school, which was started by sister Celia and the Institute of Sisters of Charity in 1998 out of a tiny mud hut and four children from poor families of the surrounding villages has now grown to have 410 students whose future is uncertain as the school does not have the money to grow it any further.
“These children could not make use of the elite school run by our own charitable society, Sacred Heart Higher Secondary School, as it is expensive and the syllabus is tough. Very few took admission in that school but dropped out because they could not cope with the studies. Some of them went to government-run schools but did not continue … It was then that the villagers asked us to start a Hindi medium school but finance was a major concern,” recalls Sister Celia Puthenpura, the brain behind the effort.
This year, as the first batch of its students appears for their matriculation, the school faces its toughest challenge ever. “Now that we are going to have a first batch of students passing out of the 10th class, we want to expand the school to the intermediate level so that they can study further. None of these students have the money to apply to private schools for further studies and they are aware of the condition of government schools,” Celia says. ”Besides, we are in sore need of one extra class room, a computer and science lab and money so that we can pay nominal salaries to teachers,” she added in an e-mail interview.
Some smart thinking on the part of the school authorities has meant that the crucial math and science subjects have always been taught in the English language so that the students can go ahead and pursue careers in medicine, engineering and other professions that are highly competitive. A committed group of teachers and a disciplined academic programme have meant that students appearing for the 5th , 8th and 10th standard level board exams have achieved 100% success rate. One girl student in 5th standard even got top marks in the region and bagged a government scholarship.
What drew the London foursome together to set off on an adventurous trip to India, the “Good Karma” drive, was what Jonathan terms a “life-transforming” meeting with Caroline Sami, the 46-year old chief executive officer of Id:ology (www.id-ology.com), a boutique consultancy that imparts leadership and team dynamics training to some of the best known names in the corporate world including Credit Suisse Group and American Express Company. ”Caroline talks about things with a passion which is instantly transferred to you. When she told me about this school and sister Celia, I wanted to do something for her and those kids,” says Knowles.
Sami recalls her chance meeting with Celia in 2006 when she was visiting Dharamshala in search of Tenzin Palmo, one of the first women from the West, to be ordained a Buddhist monk. She was her inspiration to turn to Buddhism. ”My guide took me to meet Sister Celia and I spent two amazing days with her and the kids, watching them at work and play At the end of that stay, I knew that she needed $300,000 to keep the school growing so the kids could get educated till at least age 16. At Id:ology, we adopt a cause every year and donate every month to that cause. In 2008 we have adopted Celia’s school”, she said over the phone from London.
After the meeting, two of them registered a charitable trust, Good Karma, in the summer of 2007, in London. While Sami decided to set up a website that would drive traffic from her list of clients to the good karma website so that they could donate, Knowles sold his interests in the property venture, bought two Land Rovers and decided to set off on the good karma drive, to spread the word about the venture. ”My friends were shocked and think I am crazy but to me it is important to bring a little soul back into the corporate world and our every day lives,” says Jonny.
The charity has caught the attention of a lot of people who have been donating on the website (www.goodkarmadrive.org). Jonathan says $50,000 has already been collected and Sami’s clients, including Credit Suisse and Amercian Express have pitched in with $30,000. BBC Radio has been inviting members of Jonathan’s charity and his friends every week to speak about the venture and its progress. The website itself has been showing a growing number of business houses and individuals contributing both money or their services.
It has been an adventurous trip for the gang of four who were expected to land in India on 8 January after travelling through Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy, Slovenia, Serbia Turkey, Iran and UAE. An encounter with a heavy truck in Istanbul in December destroyed one car and the other is in need of extensive repairs. This has delayed the trip to India by over a fortnight. And, with only one car left to travel in, Mark has gone back to London while Michelle, who is due at the Westminster University where she is doing her degree in photography two weeks from now, is already in India.
Simon is eagerly waiting to land here and paint his favourite murals and auction them so that the proceedings can be donated to the charity. The mural artist specializes in paintings that light up iridescently under UV rays, giving it a three-dimensional effect. In the past, he had been invited to display his work in various parts of the world including Australia, the United States and the United Arab Emirates where he has also done work for modern homes looking for a different, contemporary look. ”It would be great to get some work commissioned here and I am even ready for a newspaper to host my show so I can contribute to getting that school expansion going,” he says.
Jonny is excited about his imminent arrival at the school where he expects to spend sometime with sister Celia and her students. His original plan was to light up a few hundred or even thousand Chinese lanterns and sent them up to skies to celebrate the fund raising but that has now been shelved. “Sister Celia believes in living simply and sending those lanterns up would be like wasting a lot of scarce resources,” he told Mint on telephone, driving on a highway in Istanbul early January.