The Learning Tea brightens the future for poor or orphaned girls in India

Katrell Christie, owner of a tea shop in Atlanta, helps educate girls in India, giving them choices beyond lives of hard labor.

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    Several of the young women in the Learning Tea in Darjeeling, India, pose for a photo. The program provides school tuition, uniforms, living expenses, and even music lessons courtesy of donors, including Rotary clubs in India and the United States.
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Along the rough steep road up the Himalayas to this city known for its tea, a young woman walks bent double under a load. She's carrying rocks in a basket on her back, with a strap over her forehead.

Women will pound the rocks to break them up and make concrete.

In West Bengal, India, girls who are orphaned or whose parents are poor can look ahead to this kind of hard labor. If they are lucky, they might get field work picking tea on one of the many tea plantations for about $2 a day.

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They face other concerns. Disease is a problem in the area, and sex trafficking is rampant, posing a danger to young women without strong family protection.

That's why Lakmit and Mingma, and the young women they live with, speak with determination about their future plans.

Recipients of an unexpected opportunity, they are seizing it not only for themselves but to help others avoid the difficult future they once faced.

The two were 15 when an American woman walked into the Buddhist Girls Orphanage where they lived. She struck up a conversation with them and a third girl. After spending the afternoon with her, the teenagers begged her for help. At 16, they would age out of the orphanage and go to work, but they desperately wanted to continue their schooling.

The woman, Katrell Christie, owner of a tea shop in Atlanta, promised to help them. Then she went back to America.

“We trusted that Katrell would come back,” Lakmit says.

Six months later, Ms. Christie returned, rented an apartment for the girls, and paid for them to continue their schooling. From that first apartment, they have now moved into a duplex, which houses up to a dozen young women in Darjeeling in the program Christie named the Learning Tea. (See "A tea shop in Atlanta sends young women in India to college.")

A housemother, Nita, lives with them, and the program provides tuition, school uniforms, living expenses, and even music lessons. Through donors, including Rotary clubs in India and the United States, Christie has expanded into the cities of Kolkata and Chennai.

"I'd like to study for a PhD," Mingma says. Her plan is to enter a college for government service. She wants to become district magistrate – which is not a local judge position, but the top official in Darjeeling. (Only the first names of the girls are being used in this article for their protection.)

Her ambition is not far-fetched. She is an excellent student.

Lakmit wants to study social work. Her plan is to go to villages like the one she lived in and assist old people who are without family.

Angel wants to become a journalist. She’s also very interested in computers and has been taking outside classes in computer science.

Two others, Binu and Sujata, have been the first to graduate from college. They plan to apply to a college in Kolkata to pursue master’s degrees.

All the girls were good students to begin with, Christie says. "They just started dreaming bigger and bigger" once they got the opportunity.

The program did not work for the third student Christie originally met at the orphanage. She wanted to become a flight attendant rather than continue her education and she eventually left, Christie says.

The young women in the Learning Tea household have plenty of ideas about social change.

Mingma and Sujata want to clean up Darjeeling, both literally and figuratively.

Leaders should not be corrupt, Sujata says. "They should use money in the right way. Only rich people get jobs, especially in Darjeeling."

She also wants to stop garbage from being strewn across the streets in the town.

Mingma wants to address the scarcity that makes water too costly for poor people. She also wants to assist young women – "girls like me who are not able to get education," she says.

Binu would like to become a professor, teaching secondary school or college.

Sujata also wants to help young girls who are being prostituted. "I'd like to change their life,” she says. "Lots of girls are facing human trafficking.”

Lakmit and two other girls at the Learning Tea, Rinzee and Laxmi, volunteer at the Missionaries of Charity, caring for elderly women, some of whom are mentally disabled. There they wash clothes, comb the women's hair, polish their nails, and sometimes apply makeup.

"The ladies become very happy when we go there and play with them," Rinzee says.

Rinzee was orphaned when her mother died of TB. She plans to study nursing when she finishes at St. Teresa's Girls Higher Secondary School.

"We don't get good [care] in government hospitals," she says. "They don't give good attention to people. They are very rude to poor ones.”

Angel and some of the other girls volunteer at a program that gathers up the mangy street dogs that roam Darjeeling. The dogs are vaccinated against rabies and sterilized or neutered before being freed.

The Learning Tea requires the young women to do 10 hours a month of volunteer work. They must also remain in good academic standing and live in the house provided by the program.

Her idea is that if you give a young woman an education, she will earn adequate income, educate her children, and the cycle of poverty will be broken.

Radha Karky, administrator of Hayden Hall, a social service organization in Darjeeling, agrees: "If a mother is a coolie, and the daughter is educated, she will not become a coolie."

Life is tough for the poor in Darjeeling. "Poverty literally sucks your life out,” Ms. Karky says.

You're thinking of what you'll eat next, she says.

"You'd think there are no poor people here," Karky says. "People dress well.” But the women who pick tea earn practically nothing compared with what the tea sells for, and 80 percent of the tea pickers on tea plantations are not literate, she says.

Just as poverty is not always visible, neither is the trafficking.

There is no red light district in Darjeeling, but sex trafficking is common. Usually a girl thinks she's being offered a job and then it turns out to be prostitution.

It’s an issue that people don’t talk about, Karky says. But when people with no income suddenly become prosperous, it points to prostitution.

Access to medical care is also an issue.

At Christie’s tea shop in Atlanta, photos of the scholars the Learning Tea supports line the walls. Each month, the shop sponsors an Indian dinner with proceeds going to the scholarship program, which is philanthropic but does not have nonprofit status. Christie continues to run her tea shop, Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party, with a co-owner, and travels to India and raise funds for the Learning Tea.

The young women text her with excitement each time she arrives. They welcome her with dinner.

In May, she was there to celebrate Binu and Sujata’s graduation. The dining room was decorated with streamers and flowers. Cameras flashed as the two cut a cake.

“I am so happy and proud [that] I am the first in my family to graduate,” Sujata said. “I have dreamed of this graduation.”

“We are so thankful to you,” Lakmit said to Christie.

• For more information visit The Learning Tea at http://www.thelearningtea.com.

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