Two worlds, one classroom

A school in New Delhi opens its doors each week to help its disadvantaged neighbors.

Noor Brara
REACH OUT: Children who live in the slum near the American Embassy School come once a week for after-school activities. The AES students 'staff' different stations.

A single street shows the startling extremes of life in New Delhi, India.

On one end of the street sits a slum. The neighborhood is confined by jagged wires and fencing. Thatched rooftops form mismatched lines down a sidewalk of broken cement. The contents of each shack may be no more than an old mattress and a wooden footstool for a family of four. Half-naked children play tag in the alleys between houses, weaving in and out of dirty, narrow spaces. The slum is unclean, crowded, and in need of aid.

At the other end of the street stands a beautiful school. It is the American Embassy School (AES). Tall iron gates open into a place that looks more like a college campus than a school for children. Plush gardens and trees in between the elementary, middle, and high school buildings make up the campus. Swimming pools, soccer fields, tennis courts, rehearsal halls, and kiosks are only a few of the things the school has to offer its wealthy students.

AES is not a school for the children who live in the slums. It was built for the children of people from other countries who have come to India to work. But some teachers at AES felt that the school shouldn't be so separated from its neighbors who lived so close and had so little. Something needed to be done.

Enter Jim Poiman and Patricia Bradley, two AES teachers. They decided that the answer was to open the doors of the expansive campus to the children and families from the nearby slum.

The teachers designed a program called Reach Out to bring together AES students and jugghi (Hindi for slum) children once a week after school on campus. Reach Out would offer a wide variety of activities, including tutoring, art, music, computer lessons, and outdoor sports. The activities would be divided up into "stations" or booths manned by groups of students and set up around campus. The children could participate in any activity for however long they pleased.

At first many AES parents and teachers felt uncomfortable with the idea of opening their gates. But Mr. Poiman and Ms. Bradley worked hard to convince everyone that the Reach Out program would do much to help their neighbors. "It is better to light one candle than to stay in the dark," they said.

Children helping children

In the beginning, the neighborhood children were shy about coming to the big campus, but soon Thursdays after school became a favorite for everyone involved. And after a few months, the two groups of children figured out how to communicate even though they spoke different languages. Close friendships began to form.

Now, 16 years later, the Reach Out program is the most popular service program at AES. On Reach Out days, students hurry to meet the children as they filter through the school gates, racing each other to their favorite stations.

Service club coordinator Vera Garg explains the school's "open campus" policy in relation to outreach programs: "I think AES has always felt that if we have a facility to use, we should always lend it to others, to the underprivileged," she says. "The main idea is that we are not spending additional money, but rather offering our time, effort, and space, which is the main purpose of the program."

The Reach Out activities have helped the children who live in the slums develop hobbies and interests. The music and computer stations are favorites; the tutoring center, however, has always been the most popular. This year, the AES students saw a need for a more structured tutoring program to help the older children with homework and learning English. So they started another program called Teach India that now welcomes 50 children a week for rigorous tutoring sessions.

AES students feel that their outlook on life has changed greatly because of the Reach Out program and other service clubs. Briar Kemper, a 16-year-old originally from California, thinks about the world in new ways after participating in the program. "I have learned that there are people out there who are less fortunate than me," she says. "I feel we should be doing as much as we can to help them."

AES student Sheena Garg admits the weekly sessions aren't always easy. "This is my second year living in India, but because I lived in Cincinnati for most of my life, I am not a fluent Hindi speaker, which ... led to communication problems."

But both Sheena and Briar are two of many who lead "the AES student lifestyle," embracing volunteer service as an integral component of daily life. "I've learned that the kids we work with who are impoverished are very capable. They deserve opportunities to create a better future and I feel we should help them to the best of our ability," Sheena says.

'Enter to learn, leave to serve'

The children from the jugghi also feel that AES efforts have made a difference in their lives. "We love the students and have made many friends," says 14-year-old Shivani, laughing. "I feel happy that the school is helping us. The campus is great!"

Another young girl holds her little brother's hand tightly as she speaks of what she likes most about AES students. "They study very well, so my friends and I love going to the tutoring station for homework help. The students have helped me very much with my English."

The Reach Out program now hosts 350 to 400 children on campus each week. Mr. Poiman and Ms. Bradley's vision has made a world of difference to many individuals in the jugghi, and inspired the AES student body to honor the school's mission: "Enter to learn, leave to serve."

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