Grace Charitable Trust and one man’s passion

The reason why we’ve arranged to meet with Solomon in Masinagudi is because of his work with Grace Charitable Trust, one of the projects sponsored by Adventure Ashram. As we leave the Elephant Camp and head towards one of the tribal villages deep in the Tiger Reserve, Solomon tells us his story.

He is the seventh of nine children, and his father wanted them all to have an education. Solomon enjoyed school and did well. He had his sights set on being a Forest Ranger, and he studied hard and got top marks in his tests. His teacher, though, favoured other pupils to take up the places on offer because of their religion, and his father couldn’t afford to pay for his higher education. Bitterly disappointed, his experience clearly left Solomon with a burning desire to help other children into education.

Whilst in theory education is compulsory here, in practice children who live in remote tribal areas do not have the means or incentive to get to school each day. Parents, mostly uneducated themselves, don’t always see the need for their children to go to school, preferring to allow them to stay at home playing or watching TV. Solomon knew he had a job on his hands.

He found, though, that the children themselves were keen to go to school, and that when they did so they helped encourage their friends to go too. By this time Solomon was working as a taxi driver, and he would visit the villages in the morning and take children to school himself. If they didn’t show up, he would go to their houses and ask their parents why their kids were not in school?

Gradually and persistently he started to get buy-in to his vision for their children’s education. Solomon could see the results of his efforts as the children started to make progress with their schooling. He resolved to put all of the money he received as tips from his taxi work towards helping the children get to and from school. He paid for bus fares or other taxis to make sure they attended.

In doing so he started to get into debt. At one point he owed 11 months worth of bills to people who had worked for him. He didn’t know how he was going to repay everyone.

Solomon also had another job, working at the Jungle Hut hotel (where I’m writing this from now). Simon Smith was staying as part of the India trips he was involved in, out of which had come the Adventure Ashram charity. Solomon took Simon for a taxi ride, and during the trip they got talking. It was a trip that was to change Solomon’s life and the lives of hundreds of the children whom Solomon had been trying to help.

Simon promised to help. As a result of his efforts, Adventure Ashram raised what Solomon described as “a huge sum of money”, and suddenly Solomon’s dreams could be realised. Since then, Adventure Ashram has funded four school buses and their drivers, and tuition centres in several of the villages. Here children can meet, get extra help and lessons from their teacher, and complete their school homework. It was to one of these tuition centres at Chemmanatham that we were headed now. It was dark, and the children would be returning from school.

When we arrived it was clear that the children had been expecting us. They spilled out of their classroom in great excitement, insisting on shaking our hands and introducing themselves. We were swept into their classroom feeling like royalty.

There were 17 children here with their teacher, and we thanked them for their wonderful welcome. The tuition centre comprises two rooms, the main one being around 20 feet square, laid out with metal framed desks and colourful pictures on the walls, including maps of India and their national flags, as well as the Union Jack, and a smaller second room containing computers available for the children to use. With solar powered batteries and phone based wi-fi this is a self contained setup.

The children crowded around us as we took selfie videos with them, and they enjoyed watching themselves on the replays.Solomon told the children a little bit about us and the reason for our visit, and we asked them what they would like to do when they left school. There were several doctors and police officers, two forest rangers and a member of the military among them. We fervently hope that they go on to achieve these aspirations.

We had brought some small gifts with us, including crayons, notebooks and sharpeners. The highlight, though, was undoubtedly the bottles of bubble-blowing liquid, and soon the room was a mass of bubbles streaming in every direction. We all had a wonderful time.

It was all too soon time to leave, and we headed to our second stop of the evening at Bokkapuram. Here the tuition centre was inside the village, and we proceeded on foot past one room houses with corrugated roofs, animal enclosures, young children playing, people cooking, and a lady washing clothes using the traditional method of scrubbing them across a stone on the ground. The paths between the houses were only a few feet wide, and Solomon told us that there were 70 houses packed together here, with about 250 villagers.

The tuition centre was similar to the previous one in its shape and feel. Again we had an enthusiastic welcome, and all of the children fell over themselves to tell us their names and say “How do you do?” Again the bubbles were a big hit and happy chaos reigned as the children did what happy children do, chattering, playing together, and laughing.

Solomon had warned us that these children were a little cheekier than in the previous village, and harder to control. If that was true we saw little evidence of it. These kids were exuberant but polite, well-mannered and a delight to be with. They seemed proud of their education and their achievements, and we hope that their future is bright.

As we left for home, the children’s goodbyes ringing in our ears, I asked Solomon whether he thought that getting more children into education would change the character of the villages. “Yes, definitely,” he agreed. “The kids will have to leave home to get the jobs they want, so the villages have to change. But in a good way.”

I asked how the villagers support themselves. “Life is very hard for them,” he said. “They used to work in the hotels, but many of them have closed due to government restrictions on the Parks. They receive no other help and find it hard to get work, especially if they have to travel. They have no land of their own and cannot farm. Education is the way out of this problem.”

Back at the Jungle Hut, we ask how we can help. Solomon tells us that he doesn’t have big plans for future expansion, just to carry on doing what they are doing at the moment, helping more children. There are the running costs of the buses and drivers to meet, and hopefully Adventure Ashram can continue to support these. But every additional child who goes to school is a success, and the best way to help is to sponsor the cost of a child’s transport, uniform and materials to enable them to attend school each year. At a cost of around £20 a month this is a target within everyone’s reach.

We are deeply impressed and inspired by Solomon. He comes across as a thoughtful, joyful but very sincere man with a grand and life-changing mission. He has achieved amazing things here, and we have no doubt that he will continue to do so. He is justifiably proud of his achievements, and he deserves all of our support. If you’d like to help, there’s more information on the Adventure Ashram website.

It’s been an incredible day.

Meeting a man with a chisel

One the the great things about being a member of Rotary is that there are Clubs in most cities in the world at which you are made to feel welcome, and Mysore is no different. Last night we joined with the members of the Rotary Club of Mysore at their weekly meeting in their building on Krishna Vilas Road.

We met Club President Chetan Vishwanath and were introduced to Secretary Ravi and other members before enjoying a simple but enjoyable meal served outside. The Club sponsors a school in the adjacent building, and has a long and illustrious history of service to the local community, having been formed in 1944. We were warmly welcomed by everyone, and several members shared their experiences of visiting the UK to holiday, work and study.

We also met the speaker for the evening, Arun Yogiraj. When the meeting convened, Arun told us about his work as a sculptor, having learned his trade from his grandfather. Arun has gained much recognition for his work, including a visit from former Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, to his workshop in Mysore.

Arun’s slideshow gave us an idea of the range and scope of his work, and we were amazed by the skill of this modest but hugely successful man. Arun had brought an example of one of his smaller sculptures, a detailed representation of a gentleman who had passed away last year aged 107. Arun showed a photo of him with the man, adopting the pose he had portrayed in his statue. Some of his larger works can take several months of sustained effort with a hammer and chisel, often for 12-14 hours a day. He is clearly a master of his craft.

I told Arun how much our members in Loughborough would appreciate knowing about his work, and he kindly shared his presentation with me to use when we’re home.

The meeting closed with the traditional gift of a Club banner to me from Chetan, although I was unable to reciprocate having been unprepared with a banner from Loughborough. Good reason for another visit?

I thanked the members present for their hospitality, and mentioned the reason for our trip to Mysore, being our intention to visit the Odanadi Trust as mentioned in an earlier blog. Rotary can achieve great things when Clubs work together, and possibly there may be scope to do so in the future. I was pleased to have been able to meet Chetan and his members and enjoy their friendship.

It had been a very long day, having arrived at Bangalore at 4.50 am in the morning before making the 4 hour journey to Mysore. In all we’ve had about 2 hours sleep in the last 40. We gratefully climb into bed back at our hotel and are oblivious until morning, having had a fascinating introduction to this unique country.

Looking forward to an Indian Adventure

The idea of a trip to India began 10 years ago, when my Dad asked me if I’d like to join him on an Enduro India adventure. This 1500 km motorcycle ride across the sub-continent had captured his imagination, and as he was already in his 80’s at the time, maybe he needed a chaperone. I didn’t go with him then, or on any of the several other similar trips he did in subsequent years. Along the way he gathered quite a fan club of fellow adventurers, and it seemed he was chaperoning them rather than the other way around. 20150712_163616

Out of the India trips had arisen Adventure Ashram, a UK charity that helped support work in India that had been touched by the adventurers. When Dad passed away in 2017 (see my separate blog post) the members of Adventure Ashram proposed a new fund in his name, and you can read about it here. Adventure Ashram holds a UK Rally for cars and bikes each year, and money is raised towards Dad’s fund.

When Sue and I celebrated our Ruby Wedding Anniversary earlier this year, we suggested that guests make a donation towards the fund instead of gifts. We were delighted by everyone’s generosity, and we’ve ended up with over £3,000 to use for the charity in India.

What better excuse, then, for our first trip to India? We’re looking forward to a great holiday, and along the way we’ll be visiting two of the projects that Adventure Ashram supports. We’ve been planning our trip for several weeks, and as I write this we’re an hour away from setting off to catch the train to Heathrow, where we’ll be staying overnight.

I’m planning to keep a record of our experiences, and if you would like to know what we’re up to you can follow my blog and you’ll be notified of any new posts.

If you’d like to help boost the fund we’d be honoured to receive your donation. We can promise you the money will be put to good use.

Next stop Heathrow!