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Monday, Mar 18, 2002

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The gift of childhood

Aditi De

Christel House in Bangalore, an effort by the Confederation of Indian Industry, helps underprivileged children break the cycle of poverty. Aditi De on its efforts.

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair's wife, Cherie, visited the Christel House Learning Centre at Bangalore's Sahakara Nagar on January 5, she couldn't have been prepared for the welcome she received. She found neither staged performances nor children on their best behaviour.

``What's your job'' a little boy asked her. "I'm a lawyer," Cherie responded. ``What's that'' She explained as simply as she could. ``I wear a wig in court,'' she added. A babble of voices asked, ``Isn't that only for bald people.'' Did they know about the law? A little voice shouted, ``Order! Order!"

The bright-eyed young ones with million-watt smiles knew nothing about the British Parliament or even soccer mania. But they entranced her by singing, ``London bridge is falling down"!

Cherie met Ruhi, who lives in a slum near Sahakara Nagar; and Arjun, who was abandoned on a train to Bangalore; and Moses, who was traumatised by his drunken father's brutality towards his mother: and Premkumar, whose father owns a cycle repair shop by Christel House.

Interacting with the 320 children between 5 and 8-years-old at Christel House, a `charity of choice' for the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), can be simultaneously mind-boggling and heartrending, as Cherie Blair and others discover.

Christel House India is the fourth centre based on an international concept ``to help orphaned, abandoned or underprivileged children around the world break the cycle of poverty and become self-sufficient, contributing members of their societies.''

First established in Mexico City, Caracas and Cape Town, Christel House chose Bangalore as its fourth venue because an estimated 3, 10,000 children live in abject poverty in India's silicon valley. Hungry mouths who receive less than 1,000 calories a day, from families that earn less dm Rs. 1,000 a month.

Chosen with care from Bangalore's shelters or orphanages such as Rabita, Oasis, Sumangali and Childcare through NG0s, covering the slums at Kodigehalli, Yeshwantpur, Eranpalya, Mariyanpalya and Lingarajapuram, these children will receive intensive education, medical and psychological care, vocational training and, eventually jobs.

How is that possible? The non-profit NGO is based on a corporate corpus turned philanthropic, initiated by US entrepreneur Christel DeHaan, 59, who co-founded the giant time-share Resort Condominiums International (RCI), with 18 offices worldwide, 27 years ago. In 1996, DeHaan sold RCI for about $ 1 billion.

Shaped by a visit to a Mexican orphanage,the curriculum for Christel House — designed by leading authorities on child development — is shaped for local relevance. Like RCI, Christel House is shaped by a service model that believes in not running orphanages, but helping existing ones to do better.

``We're taking on the total responsibility for the child,'' explains Shukla Bose, 46, RCI's ex-managing director in India, now MD of Christel House. ``We have to be accountable. We're changing the child's way of life. There are no glass ceilings here. We have commitments from the hospitality industry that Christel House graduates will be given jobs as managers or in their restaurants.''

The international Christel Foundation will fund all the capital expenses in perpetuity of the green-studded seven-acre future campus at Hennur with ethnic-style buildings for 2,000 kids, which should be ready in about a year, with an initial corpus of Rs 4 crore.

However, running costs such as teacher's salaries, the daily food programme and uniforms have to be raised locally.

Donors have stepped in to contribute the sunny T-shirts with grey shorts or pinafores for these ICSE-bound students. A British resort developer is covering a year's meals for the children. There's an ongoing scheme to sponsor a child for a year for Rs 36,000. A multinational software giant has volunteered to mentor a class at Christel House.

``We don't want to be recipients of pity,'' explains Shukla, whom the doting Christel House children flock to for a hug, a kiss, even a secret. ``These children have tremendous resilience and dignity. Since we have total transparency about our use of funding, we believe there should be accountability from donors as well. To me, it makes sense to sign a legal annual contract with anyone who'd like to engage in a project with us. They can't suddenly back out because they are too busy.''

Shukla adds, ``I'd like to check out that their volunteers dress right, and don't use swear words. Our children soak up so much non-verbal information. Each visitor is a potential role model to them.''

As Arjun and Vanilla help us to spin out the bare outline of a story in English, as Ruhi sings a Kannada song, as Moses lifts his finger for a toilet break, it is impossible to believe that just six months ago, these children had to be trained to use a toilet, eat cleanly off plates, or speak an international language.

Since being brought by bus to the non-residential Christel House last June, its walls bright with their original paintings, these kids engage with a new life from 8.30 a.m. to 4 p.m., six days a week. They have watched their first TV shows. They have visited the Jakkur airport, learnt yoga and watched marine life at an aquarium.

They no longer run out of school after lunch, as they used to during their days of begging on the streets or rag-picking. They no longer gobble down their meals, for fear of delicious morsels being snatched away. They no longer ache from open sores due to malnutrition. Instead, they come up to visitors with a chirpy, ``Good morning Akka'' or ``What is your name.'' About 170 of them have already shot up three inches or more on their vitamin- supplemented three meals a day.

Seated on red-oxide floors, each marked with white squares, in vertical learning units named Air, Space, Water, Moon, Sun, Fire, and Earth, these first-time learners cope with English, Kannada, math and cultural studies, guided by 16 teachers.

Each square represents a space that belongs to the individual child, each classroom is a home away from their past traumas, each teacher is a friend. They have celebrated Id with egg biriyani and firni after a collective namaaz, Christmas with Santa Clans and their first chocolate cake.

Perhaps the future of Christel House is best captured in seven- year-old Chetan's invitation to his Shukla Akka to visit him at home. She took the bus ride home with him, to a tarpaulin-covered shanty where he lives with his mother and younger siblings. His mother had rushed back from her job as a domestic maid, mindful of Chetan's instructions to buy a Pepsi and a cake from the nearby store.

What would Chetan like to do when he grows up? ``Earn lots and lots of money,'' he responds, looking at his younger brother, already at Christel House. What will he do with it all? ``Build a roof over our house for my mother.''

Christel House rests on dreams such as Chetan's. For, if its 2,000 students act as agents of change, breaking the cycle of poverty, it will mean a legacy of opportunity and hope that will travel down future generations — all because these children have received a priceless gift — the restoration of their childhood.

Picture courtesy: Christel House

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