“Redefining Possibilities – the School with the ‘All Star’ Cast ” | Smita Nair Jain

  • Smita Nair Jain – May 26, 2020
Photo courtesy: shantibhavanchildren.org

I am usually proud of the awareness that I believe I have about good, game-changing work being done by people in India. Imagine my surprise at stumbling upon the #DaughtersofDestiny docuseries on Netflix. I write this article, not as a review of the docuseries, but as an attempt to share and spread with the many in my network who are unaware, as I was – about the works of Dr. Abraham George and ShantiBhavan. Being inspired is only one of the first things you will be after reading this story and the journey therein 

This is the story of Dr. Abraham George, the story of Shanti Bhavan – his labour of love and the metamorphic stories of the Shanti Bhavan students, both current and alumni. 

Shanti Bhavan 

Shanti Bhavan, at its basic is a non-profit organization that is based in Bangalore and runs a Pre-Kindergarten to Class 12 residential school in Baliganapalli in Tamil Nadu. 

Shanti Bhavan represents an approach to ‘poverty alleviation’ in the most sustainable way – educating one child per family from 24 – 25 of the poorest families across rural villages, city slums and the lowest castes of India each year. The school provides each child with 17 years of educational intervention using a holistic approach to feed, house, clothe and educate these children from the age of four – handholding them from their first day of school to their first day of work – leveling the playing field enroute thereby allowing their children to compete in the global marketplace on their own merit. 

And that by itself is not novel. Numerous NGOs and institutions in India, now further propelled by the CSR Law as per The Companies Act, 2013 – focus on educating the marginalized. But the objectives of most such projects revolve around giving life skills and providing an ability to earn a livelihood to children from economically challenged backgrounds. 

Here, the focus is on propelling lives from the fringes into the mainstream; a holistic approach that pays attention to every aspect of a child’s up-bringing: emotional development, mental and physical fitness, social and cognitive growth and academic excellence. 

The Protagonist 

It is for the first time that I am confused about the use of the term ‘Protagonist’. Here is a school with an ‘all-star’ cast – all strong contenders for the title of ‘Hero’. 

Photo courtesy: shantibhavanchildren.org

– Dr. Abraham George 

Dr. George, while certainly being the Hero here could have over the years, been elevated to the position of the Benevolent Benefactor. And while he is certainly that, he continues to be the Hero too – because he is at the centre of all the action at Shanti Bhavan – through his visionary ideas, his keen eye for detail, his constant presence and deep engagement with the Project, the students, their families and their circumstances at home. . 

After a chequered career across India and the US, Dr. George turned an entrepreneur – a turn that ended in a very lucrative sale to a Fortune 500 company. Most entrepreneurs at the end of a 

successful stint graduate to being Serial Entrepreneurs or Angels, both being roads to further enhance the significant wealth already amassed through the first successful entrepreneurial stint. 

But Dr. George thought differently. On his mind was India – his country of origin and on his line of focus was ‘Poverty Alleviation’ through ‘education’ 

Photo courtesy: shantibhavanchildren.org

– Ajit George 

Dr. George’s son and Director of Operations at Shanti Bhavan, who very effectively toggles between the roles of a Student Counsellor, Fundraiser and Director of Operations is the other Hero. I bestow this title on him not only because of his much needed and praiseworthy fund raising skills, keen interest in the performance and progress of each of his students, ability to have equal dialogues with the students, and the manner in which he engages and educates male students on ‘gender equality’; but also because he chose to decline his personal inheritance of US D 25 – 50 Million in favour of setting up a school for the downtrodden 

– Next in line for the ‘Hero’ title are the Loving Dorm caretakers, Understanding Teachers, and keen volunteers who not only take care of the children as their own, but teach them important lessons from within and outside the text book world. 

– The Heroes 

But Struggle or Conflict is central to a drama and it is therefore the students of Shanti Bhavan who perhaps are the true Heroes of this story as they are the ones who consistently emerge victorious over their trials and tribulations. Their journey and therefore their victories are remarkable because 

– Each student comes in from the poorest homes and backgrounds and yet… 

– They left home at the tender age of 4 to study, live and grow in Shanti Bhavan with visits to their parents’ home only during school vacations. And this continues for 14- 17 years 

– The gradual but very obvious metamorphosis of these near-infants into articulate, assertive, bright, confident beings who know their mind within the first year or two at Shanti Bhavan 

– The emotional intelligence of each of these students when they go home and revert back to the often less than basic living conditions of their families, especially their sensitivities towards their less fortunate siblings who never got a chance to go to Shanti Bhavan and live the associated lifestyle there, due to the ‘one child per family’ policy of Shanti Bhavan 

– The children grow into elegant ladies and well-groomed gentlemen, who carry themselves with flair and are well adjusted to their highly conflicting circumstances of having lived a life of comfort and opportunity at Shanti Bhavan, in contrast to the reality of their family’s living conditions. They carry with elan, the burden of expectations that Shanti Bhavan, Dr. George and their own families have from them, even while they feel considerable self-doubt 

– Each of them seizes opportunities, often beyond their normal performance power, through sheer determination, hard work and the will to succeed. 

– Some students have even reached the hallowed hallways of famous national and international universities and institutions and embarked on successful careers in Corporates, Law, Social Activism, Writing and Research 

But above all, it is the sheer spunk that these girls and boys have, their English language skills, their values, their emotional intelligence, their ability to express their thoughts in the most arresting and 

lucid manner, their commitment towards their families and communities and their determination and success at achieving what their hearts are set upon – that convinces me of their transformative journeys and resultant heroism. 

And if there is any of truth In the words of William Wordsworth, ‘the child is the father of man’, the multi-faceted lessons seared in the minds, hearts and beings of the Shanti Bhavan children will sooner than later manifest in great, hitherto unimagined individual and group achievements. 

Uplifting a chunk of tomorrow’s youth, shaping their relevance and empowering them to take a seat at the Table is the most humane, noble and undebatable form of nation building. 

And at 74, Dr. George’s energy levels, ideas, and passion only seem on the rise. 

God Bless You Sir, Dr. Abraham George. God Bless Shanti Bhavan, its Students, Teachers and Partners

– Smita Nair Jain

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Disclosure: Smita Nair Jain has nothing to disclose. She doesn’t own stock in any publicly traded companies and does not hold investments in the technology companies. She has equivalent of the American 401(k) plan in India that is automatically managed. (Updated: May 26, 2020)

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