My name is Lynn Bernabei and I have been working with Asia Initiatives since March 2013. During my time with AI, I had the privilege of traveling to Tamil Nadu, the southeastern most state in India, with the head of Asia Initiatives New York, Geeta Mehta, and some of AI’s international team. Many of the projects AI funds are based in Tamil Nadu and we were going to check on their progress. I have dedicated this post to the highlights of the trip.
One of our first meetings took place in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu. We met three gentlemen from SCSTEDS, or Slum Children Sports Talent and Education Development Society. What’s so great about the organization is that these three men came from the slum themselves and now, they have fulltime jobs but still dedicate themselves to managing this program. We have agreed to give them additional funds for equipment, nutritional meals for the kids, and a projector.
We spent the remainder of the trip in Tiruchchirappalli, or Trichy, which is about five hours southwest of Chennai. We started off by visiting the linchpin to Asia Initiatives, a Village Knowledge Center. Villagers come here to learn farming techniques, business management skills, and to learn about happenings in their community. We observed as two women manufactured sanitary napkins that would be distributed to women in the village. Sanitary napkins sold in stores are too expensive for the villagers to buy, so this is a good alternative.
The following day we went to a village that employed a group of 15 women as gem cutters. They receive large jagged stones, which they cut, shape, and polish. The women then sell these polished gems so that they can be made into jewelry elsewhere. For many of them, the income they make through their gem cutting business is the only income their families have. From there, we drove about 15 minutes to a Dalit village. Dalits are untouchables, the lowest caste in India, which has been marginalized by society. Neighboring villages often won’t buy crops grown in Dalit villages. Dalit children go to school with children from nearby villages, but can’t socialize with them. They live a heartbreaking existence. We were visiting their village to see a water well that we had funded some years ago – this was by far my favorite site visit. As we got out of our cars the village greeted us and blessed us. They walked us through the village and the fields to the water well. This was the first village we went to with children, so while Geeta and company spoke to the adults about the well, I played with the children and let them look at my camera. They were earnest and vivacious. After the adults were finished talking we returned to the village and the villagers had us each plant a tree. This was the most grateful group of people I have ever met. We were then taken into the village temple, where we were blessed again, and then we began discussing a new project to build sanitation facilities in the village. Currently, the village has no toilets, not even holes in the ground. To go to the bathroom, the villagers have to walk ten minutes to the other side of their fields. Hopefully we will be able to accrue the funds to build these toilets soon. Saying goodbye to the villagers was tough because of how happy they were to be with us. The children continued to wave goodbye until our car was out of sight.
It was time for our final stop of the trip. We traveled about 20 minutes to a strip of stores, one of which was brand new thanks to Asia Initiatives. A woman needed a place to sew and sell her items, and we helped her to acquire this storefront. We were here to officially open it with her in a ribbon cutting ceremony. We arrived and were invited upstairs. Geeta was walking in front of me and as she turned the corner and entered the large patio upstairs I heard a round of applause. Completely shocked, I turned the corner and found fifty female villagers sitting, applauding our entry. The villagers honored us by giving us each a white towel. As each person in our group received their towel, words were exchanged, smiles were shared, clapping ensued, and the head of the group draped the towels over our shoulders. Afterwards, we went back downstairs, where Geeta and the local government official cut the ribbon on the new store.
Seeing with my own eyes the work Asia Initiatives does was the most rewarding and insightful experience of my life.
– Lynn is a Junior Board Member at Asia Initiatives.