GUEST POST: “I love this school and I love these kids.”

Laura Sandall with seventh and eighth grade students at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School

By Laura Sandall 

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School was a very special place for Laura Sandall’s older sister Emily.   A young woman with tremendous spirit and energy, Emily raised money for the school when she herself was still in high school.  A few years later, she seized the opportunity to live in the Sankhu-Palubari community and volunteer at the school for several months.  Emily died, unexpectedly and far too young, in a hiking accident in November 2006.  The Sandall family decided shortly thereafter that they would honor Emily’s legacy by continuing to share her passion for education of the most disadvantaged children.  They created the Emily Sandall Foundation, because, as their foundation’s website says, “In the midst of tragedy comes opportunity”.  The  Emily Sandall Foundation has supported The Advocates’ school in Nepal for more than five years, along with many other educational projects that Emily would have loved.  Laura Sandall and her mother, Becky Sandall, were able to visit (and make their own unique contributions to) the Sankhu-Palubari Community School for the first time in September 2012  as volunteers on The Advocates’ team.  Here, in our first guest post on The Advocates Post, Laura shares her thoughts about the Sankhu-Palubari Community School.  ~ Jennifer Prestholdt

I wasn’t sure how I would feel pulling up to the Sankhu-Palubari Community School for the first time. Emily had loved the school dearly since she was in high school, raising money on her own to support the kids in Sankhu.  She would carry around a milk carton during high school and collect change and send it off to the school.  She even helped me do a presentation at my own middle school and we raised a hundred dollars.  She was so passionate about these kids’ education.

Sankhu is a very poor village located outside of Kathmandu, Nepal.  The Sankhu school began in 1999 when a group in Minnesota wanted to give these kids a chance at a great education  Luckily, my mom and I were able to visit the school with this group from Minnesota, The Advocates for Human Rights.  They are a group of very intelligent, very passionate people who have worked so hard to support this school and with the help of a local Nepali organization called Educate the Children, they have all been able to make this school very successful and to be able to give children an amazing education.

The kids that enroll in Sankhu are at a very low caste, their parents are mostly farmers and most of their parents cannot read or write.  The children, due to their families’ low income, would normally be doing labor if it weren’t for this school.  Many of them were child laborers before this school was started.  Now, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School enrolls over 300 students, ranging from nursery to 10th grade.  These kids who would have been working in a farm or making bricks now can read and write and have a chance to get a great education.

I knew all of this before visiting the school but I wasn’t prepared for the emotions of actually seeing it. I was able to meet the children in all of the different grades, meet their teachers, meet the headmaster of the school and see all of the classrooms.  I was able to interview over 15 students and ask them detailed questions about their families and about what this school means to them.  I was even able to lead a nutrition class for the 7th and 8th graders and teach them about the importance of eating well. I also lead a few classes on reading.

I felt closer to Emily the past week then I have in many years.  Seeing the kids and having them tell me firsthand how this school has changed their lives and how grateful they are to have our support meant the absolute world to me. These kids are special.  Some of them walk over 2 hours a day each way to come to class and many of them work before and after school to help their parents with their farms and with housework.  They are incredibly dedicated children in their studies and with their families.

Although the children in this school are the poorest of the poor in this village, they have done extremely well in school and 100% of the 10th grade students passed the SLC exam, which far exceeds most of the other schools in the surrounding area and Kathmandu.  They are all so happy to be getting an education.  And to hear one of the students tell me that if it wasn’t for the school, he would be making bricks and not be able to read or write is very moving and shows how important education is to these children.

I love this school and I love these kids.  And even after ten years since Emily lived in Nepal and volunteered at the school, her presence there is still very strong.  Many of the older kids remember Emily and told us she was their favorite teacher.  One of the teachers who still works there was one of Emily’s close friends and had the children in her class sing us Emily’s favorite Nepali song. And the headmaster of the school called Emily his best friend and reminisced about her dancing and singing and her passion for helping disadvantaged youth.  It’s amazing how she touched so many people and after all these years, she is still remembered so fondly and so loved by so many people at the school.

She continues to awe me in her love for life and her love for people and her love for helping others.  I am still so proud of what Em did in her short life and I also am so proud to be a part of the Sankhu school. The kids were so polite, so willing to learn, so excited about their education and their futures.  To know that if it wasn’t for this school, they would be child laborers and would have completely different futures.  To see the graduates of the 10th grade continuing on in their education, wanting to be doctors or teachers, and applying to universities.  Many of the students said that after graduating university, they would want to come back to their village and help the people in need.

I know Emily was there with us as we sang with the kids, asked them questions, and as I taught my own classes to the 7th and 8th graders.  I know that she would be so happy that we saw the school that was a catalyst for her passion of helping child laborers.  Even though she is gone, Em is still challenging me to see new places and to help others in need and for that I will always be grateful.

Volunteers Laura and Rebecca Sandall with students.
Volunteers Laura and Rebecca Sandall with students.

INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE GIRL: Kanchi’s Story

INTERNATIONAL DAY OF THE GIRL: Kanchi’s Story

by Jennifer Prestholdt

Every morning when I come into work, I am greeted by the smiling face of a young girl. Her hair is pulled neatly back into two braids, glossy black against her pink hairbands.  Her eyes, dark and alert, shine – I swear I can see a twinkle in them.  She wears the blue uniform of her school, the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in rural Nepal.  The Advocates for Human Rights supports the school to provide the right to education to the most disadvantaged kids in the area and to prevent them from becoming involved in child labor.  Photographs from the school hang on the walls of our office, reminders to us of the lives that we impact with our human rights work.

Even though I see her every day, until last month I had never met this cheerful young girl, a girl whose smile – even in a photo – comes from her core, seems to light her entire being. Until last month, I did not know that her name was Kanchi.  And I had never heard her incredible story.

*****

In 1999, Kanchi was six years old.  She lived with her family in a village in the Kathmandu Valley.  Her parents were poor farmers; they had only a little land and some cattle and they struggled to feed their family.  Kanchi was the youngest of six sisters.  She and her sisters (and also her  brother) had to help their parents in the fields and with household chores.  Kanchi’s job was also to take the cattle to the forest to graze.   Kanchi did not go to school.   There were many children in Nepal that did not go to school at that time, but girls, like Kanchi, were more likely than boys to work rather than go to school – particularly in rural areas like the Suntole district where she lived.

Kanchi was a very smart and determined little girl.  She wanted to go to school.   So when she heard that a new school was opening in the Sankhu-Palubari community – a school for kids who were not able to go to school because they couldn’t pay or were discriminated against – she was very excited.  She rushed off to tell her parents.  But her parents, who had never themselves been educated, were not as excited as Kanchi.  Why should they let her go to school?  Who would help feed the family? Why should they send her to school if she was only going to get married in a few years anyway?

Kanchi says that she cried for a month and begged her parents to let her go to school.  One day, teachers from the new school came to visit Kanchi’s parents to talk to them about the school. The teachers explained that it would help THEM if Kanchi could read and write.  They explained why it was important for all children to go to school, even girls.  They told them that all children – even the poorest, the lowest-caste, members of indigenous groups – had a right to education.

Kanchi’s older sisters, who had never had the opportunity to go to school, took her side. Instead getting an education, they had all married young and were working in the fields.  Kanchi’s sisters argued that Kanchi should go to school, take this opportunity for a life that would be different from theirs.  Finally, their parents agreed to let Kanchi go to school.

Kanchi started at the Sankhu-Palubari Community School in 1999, one of 39  students in the first kindergarten class.  To get to school, Kanchi had to walk one and a half hours each way.  There were many other obstacles along the way, too.  At various times, her parents wanted her to stop school and help them with farming.  But she stayed in school and worked hard. She told her parents,  “I want to do something different from the others.”

Kanchi liked her teachers and felt supported by them.  She felt that the best thing about the school was the teaching environment.  She stayed in school and was one of only two girls in the first class to graduate from 8th grade.  She continued on to high school and completed 12th grade at  Siddhartha College of Banepa in 2012.  The first in her family to go to school, Kanchi is also the first girl from the Sankhu-Palubari Community School to graduate from 12th grade.

Kanchi at her graduation from 8th grade

I met Kanchi for the first time in September.  Almost exactly 13 years after this brave little girl started kindergarten, she is a lovely young woman who is preparing for her university entrance exams.  She plans to study agriculture  starting in January.   Her parents are proud of her and they are happy now – she has chosen the family profession – but Kanchi is interested in learning more about organic farming so she can bring techniques back to her village.  “I want to live a healthy life and give a healthy life to others,” she says.

Sitting in the principal’s office at Sankhu-Palubari Community School, I asked her what the school meant to her.  Kanchi said, “I gained from this school my life.  If I hadn’t learned to read and write, I would be a housewife.”  When asked about her sisters, she told me that they had made sure to send their own children to school.

In her free time, Kanchi likes to sing and dance and make handicrafts to decorate her room.  She likes to play with her sisters’ children.  She has a smile that lights the whole world.  She told me her nickname, Himshila.  She smiled when she told me it means “mountain snow, strong rock”.  Strong rock.  That seems just about right.

*****

October 11, 2012 is the first International Day of the Girl Child.  The United Nations has designated this day to promote the rights of girls, highlight gender inequalities and the challenges girls face, and address discrimination and abuse suffered by girls around the globe.  In many ways, the story of Kanchi and her sisters reflects the experience of girls in many countries throughout the world.  All over the world, girls are denied equal access to education, forced into child labor, married off at a young age, and pressured to drop out of school because of their gender.

There are many good reasons to ensure access to education for girls like Kanchi, however. Educating girls is one of the strongest ways to improve gender equality.  It is also one the best ways to reduce poverty and promote economic growth and development.

“Investing in girls is smart,” says World Bank President, Robert Zoellick. “It is central to boosting development, breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, and allowing girls, and then women—50 percent of the world’s population—to lead better, fairer and more productive lives.”

The International Day of the Girl is a day to recommit ourselves to ensuring that girls like Kanchi have the chance to live their lives to their fullest possible potential.  To redouble our efforts to promote the rights of girls wherever they live. To shout out her story as an inspiration to girls all over the world. Girls with the same strength, bravery, and determination as Kanchi, but who just need the opportunity.

How will you celebrate the International Day of the Girl?

Jennifer Prestholdt is the Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights.

UPDATED:  Kanchi is a young woman of many talents.  After this post was originally published, she told me that she also likes to write poetry. She asked that we include the following poem that she wrote in this post.

When I was born in small hut,

i’d be a heavy load,

i’d be a heavy load,

 Anyhow i have to accept all the things

which were asked by father & mother

because i’m a daughter,

because i’m a daughter.

 Father& Mother always used to say

that i don’t have any right to read & write

because 1 day i have to leave birth place

& i have to be someone’s wife,

,i have to be someone’s wife.

 They says that i cannot do anything in my life because

my life is like an egg which can

Creak at anytime if it falls,

Which never be join back,

which never be join back.

 They say that to do household work,

that’s my big property &

during the time of my marriage

when i get more dowry,

during the time of my marriage

when i get more dowry.

 These heart pinches words

collided in my ear,

my heart nearly go to burst,

,my heart nearly go to burst.

 At that time my 1 heart says

that u have to leave this selfish world.

But another heart says that don’t get tired

to achieve goal u have to struggle more,

u have to struggle more.

NEPAL: Visiting The Sankhu-Palubari Community School

NEPAL: Visiting The Sankhu-Palubari Community School
Some students walk – up to 2 hours each way – to Sankhu-Palubari Community School to access their right to education.

By Jennifer Prestholdt

A team of staff and volunteers from The Advocates for Human Rights is in Nepal visiting the Sankhu-Palubari Community School (SPCS) in the rural Kathmandu Valley.  The Advocates has supported the school since it was founded in 1999 to prevent child labor, encourage gender parity in education, and improve the lives and well-being of the most disadvantaged children in the area.

In the United States, where education is both compulsory and free, we often forget that the right to education is not meaningfully available in many parts of the world – especially for girls.  The UN estimates that there were more than 67 million primary school-age and 73 million lower secondary school-age children out of school worldwide in 2009.  In addition, an estimated 793 million adults lack basic literacy skills. The majority of them are women.

Most of the students’ families work in agriculture.  They are farmers with little or no money to spare on school fees, uniforms and supplies.   Frequently, the adults in the family are illiterate. Many of them are from marginalized groups such as the Tamang. An indigenous group with their own culture and language, the Tamang students must learn Nepali as well as English when they come to school.  A pre-K program was added in 2011 to provide pre-literacy eduction to better prepare the students for school. This week, The Advocates’ team is conducting a site visit which includes interviewing students in grades 5 through 10 about their experiences at the school and their plans for the future.

We’ve been inspired to hear from so many of the girls about their commitment to getting a good education. Since the school’s founding in 1999, the teachers have conducted outreach to parents and worked hard to encourage female students to attend and stay in school in spite of societal pressure to get married, work in the fields or enter domestic work.

Their efforts have definitely paid off.  While girls worldwide generally are less likely to access, remain in, or achieve in school, 52% of the students in K-8th grades at the school this year are girls. And a girl is at the top of the class in nearly every single grade at SPCS.

Students had so much to tell us about their hopes and dreams for the future.  Some wanted to be doctors and nurses. Some wanted to be teachers. Some even wanted to be professional football (soccer) players!

The Sankhu-Palubari Community School may be a small school in a remote valley, but it is a place where the human right to education is alive and well, providing a better future for these children.  The impact that these students have on their community, their country and – hopefully, the world – will be thrilling to watch.

Volunteer Aviva Breen interviewing a student.
Deputy Director Jennifer Prestholdt interviewing a student.
Laura Sandall used her recent Americorps experience to teach a health class for the 7th and 8th grade students.

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PHOTO CREDITS:  Robin Phillips, Jennifer Prestholdt and Laura Sandall
Jennifer Prestholdt is the Deputy Director of The Advocates for Human Rights