Unsung Heroes

A little over a month ago, Meenal asked me to watch a fairly new Netflix documentary series called Daughters of Destiny, promising me that I would end up in tears within the first hour. Out of curiosity, I looked it up and saw that it comprised of four episodes, each being at least an hour long. So I put it on the back burner and decided to watch it when I got the time.

In the days that followed, she kept feeding me bits of information about this school called Shanti Bhavan in India and it took me a tad bit of time to make the connection between the documentary series and the school. Soon, I found myself binge watching this series, going through the whole thing in one sitting. The only difference was that while Meenal felt emotional and cried while watching it, I felt elated and excited by the vision behind the cause.

By the time I was done, Meenal had already gone through their website, read up on the charity and even made a list of things that stood out to her about this institution. It was only a matter of time before I added my own observations to this list and we decided to get in touch with Ajit George, the Director of Operations at Shanti Bhavan, but more importantly to us, the son of the founder of this beautiful school.

Ajit's father, Dr. Abraham George, was a hugely successful NRI businessman based in the US. At the age of 50, staying true to a personal deadline he had set for himself, he sold all his assets, raised funds for his charitable project and returned to India with the vision to build a school. And no ordinary school at that, but a residential school for underprivileged kids mostly belonging to the Dalit (untouchable) community in India. His vision, again, was not just to build a school for these kids but to ensure that they would be equipped to pull themselves, their families and even their communities out of poverty. To this end, not only does Shanti Bhavan take care of every single expenditure of these children for as long as they are students at the institution (from age 4 - 18), but it also sees them through college and supports them (both emotionally and financially) till they land their first jobs.

I want you, dear reader, to please take a second to let that information sink in. I'm talking about not only basic food, clothing, and shelter, but also medical bills, ICSE/ISC board exam fees, college fees, hostel accommodations, and even mobile phones and laptops for the college kids. Basically, these kids receive the same education and opportunities that many of my contemporaries and I did. The difference between us and them is that we never even gave a second thought to the privilege of being able to sit in a classroom whereas they walk into class every morning with the knowledge that they were the lucky ones who got to learn new things while their parents and siblings slaved away in local quarries and factories.

You need to listen to this episode to grasp the complex system in place to ensure the smooth running of the institution. A lot of thought, effort and calculation have gone into each aspect of making this system work, starting from basic logistics to a more social and even legal element of child protection.

You will also find in this episode a lot of hidden gems about this wonderful family, starting with Ajit's grandmother, Mrs. Aleyamma George, who was one of the first women in India to get a Ph.D. in Physics. She also worked for NASA as a research scientist. Both Dr. Abraham George and his son Ajit too have similarly interesting histories and accomplishments that have shaped their ethos in ways that have helped them to run Shanti Bhavan successfully over the past twenty years.

But they did go through a dark phase in 2008 when, unexpectedly depleted of funds from all corners, the family had to consider shutting down the school, while simultaneously running the risk of becoming homeless themselves. Exactly a week after Nishant Joshi jokingly asked us if anyone had cried on our podcast, hearing Ajit choke up as he related this incident was heartbreaking.

But the good news is that today, Shanti Bhavan is thriving and producing graduates who go on to land jobs at companies like Amazon, Delloite, and Goldman Sachs to name a few. In five years, they save more than what their parents saved during their entire lifetimes. What we are witnessing is a social movement in India to eradicate class/caste based poverty altogether. And I urge you to kindly support their cause.

If you who wish to either volunteer with them or help them build their second school, please visit www.shantibhavanchildren.org

I hope this conversation brings meaning and light into your lives the way it did to ours.