Five hours away from Hyderabad, the capital of Andhra Pradesh, Ananthaiahgaripalli is a rather typical rural village — dirt roads, fields, cows running free. Life is slow, and people often stop during and in between their daily tasks to chat with neighbors.
But a life of leisure also has its consequences. With only one two-classroom school that stops short of an elementary education and has limited textbooks, supplies and resources, the need to provide financially for the family often thwarts any pursuit of higher education.
“We realize that a lot of these kids don’t ever get the chance to graduate from a school that goes up to tenth standard because there aren’t that many in the nearby vicinity,” says Weinberg senior and Sanjeevani Project founder Abhita Reddy. “We want them to be able to graduate and go on to an higher education, obtain that higher education and come back and help — give back to the community that they grew up in.”
Two years ago, inspiration came to Reddy during one of her many visits back to her father’s village. Seeing the living conditions and witnessing how far her father has come, Reddy felt the desire to give back to the community. Receiving a higher education, moving to the States and becoming a successful gastroenterologist, her father is considered a success story in this small village, and community members often line up outside of his parent’s house when he visits.
“A lot of the times, my dad would just prescribe very simple medication, things we could get in CVS,” Reddy says. This incident exemplified the need to improve the general living conditions in the area.
Upon return, Reddy founded the Sanjeevani Project, named after her father and which translates loosely in Hindi to “one that infuses life.” The not-for-profit organization aims to improve the overall quality of life in this village located in the Kadapa district. The long-term plan? Establish a school that goes to tenth standard, the equivalent of an American high school education, and a clean water system. Founded by Northwestern students and run out of Park Evanston Apartments, the Sanjeevani Project intends to bring teachers to the community and establish a curriculum that will offer the community an education that extends past elementary school.
“We just want to give them the agency for a better life, give them the resources to be healthier and make smarter life decisions,” says Communication senior Nadine Ibrahim.
Reddy began a publicity movement, sending e-mails over listservs and invitations over Facebook for an informational session. The team took out a $21,000 loan and bought a 10-acre plot of land near the center of the village. Since then, the group has expanded beyond the Northwestern campus. Reddy spread the word to her hometown friends in New Orleans, and students at Tulane University, Washington University in St. Louis and Science Po have started chapters and contributed to fundraising efforts.
After months of brainstorming and fundraising, the next step required finalizing the property contracts and meeting the community. The reasons for visiting Ananthaiahgaripalli were twofold. Reddy thought immersion and experience would aid the project as a whole, allowing the board members to see the poverty and disparity firsthand and fully understand a rural culture through exposure. It also offered a chance to network with various organizations and sit down with government officials to ensure that the team was not overlooking anything.
“I have never done a project pertaining to India before,” Reddy says. “So throwing yourself into such a large scale project is difficult, especially if you haven’t been exposed to the differences in government.”
In mid-July, four Northwestern students — Kurtis Fjerstad, Hugo Massa, Nadine Ibrahim and Victor ‘Vik’ Siclovan — joined Reddy in India for the full immersion experience. Traveling between Mumbai, Hyderabad and the rural village itself, the group was able to gain perspective what the residents in Ananthaiahgaripalli needed. They conducted needs assessment surveys and began visiting various schools in Kadapa to learn from their shortcomings and integrate the positive aspects into their own project.
In order to gauge the village’s needs, Ibrahim drafted a survey that assessed how the villagers viewed education and what was most important.
“We wanted to figure out motives and the perspective on education,” she says, “to see what the school needed to be for them to want to go.”
The Sanjeevani Project discovered that parents did indeed value education, and financial burdens and limited opportunities prevented families from putting their children past fifth standard.
“Because of that, we know now that we have to integrate a system of making sure that families can still be financially secure while their children are in school,” Ibrahim says.
Weinberg sophomore Kurtis Fjerstad says the problem comes from both the teachers and students. The limited space does not serve as a very good learning environment.
“For some, it’s just not beneficial to go everyday,” Kjerstad says. “With the teachers, it’s very unorganized and at times it is go and come as you please.”
Residents were also very receptive about integrating extracurricular activities to the curriculum.
“We think it would be a great way to diversify knowledge and develop character,” Ibrahim says. “It makes life more interesting.”
“We have this huge space for sports,” Reddy says, describing the plot of land. “We are going to have cricket, soccer. Of course we want to stay small scale at first, but maybe in the future the children can compete with schools further away.”
As Reddy and the team look ahead, fresh from their experience abroad, they face difficulties finding teachers and staff within the village. The majority of villagers themselves do not have enough educational background to support the curriculum in mind.
“We have several options,” Reddy says. “We are not sure if individuals will be motivated enough from the U.S. to go live in a really isolated village for a long period of time or if we need to fundraise enough money to have really competitive salaries for Indian teachers who speak English from elsewhere to bring them there.”
Additionally, the Sanjeevani Project aims to raise $250,000 to complete phase I and begin the first year of schooling for lower kindergarten, the Indian equivalent of pre-kindergarten, in May 2011.
They also learned that the project needed to focus on aspects beyond the classroom. After realizing that families had difficulties accessing a hospital, Reddy decided that it would be important to add a health clinic to the site plan.
Reddy hopes to gradually introduce higher grades, but intends to start with one class and one grade.
“That’s kind of the ultimate goal, to see at least one child be successful,” Reddy says. “Hopefully there are more, but if there is at least one, I feel like I’ll have been successful in my efforts.”