Katrell Christie stands behind the counter of her tea and coffee shop in Atlanta. Threadbare oriental carpets cover the marred concrete floor. Bookshelves line the walls, and secondhand tables with ancient lamps are scattered around. Sumptuous cakes and thick cookies are displayed under glass.
In this shop, known as Dr. Bombay's Underwater Tea Party, Ms. Christie launched her dream of making college possible for a group of young women in India. Four years after starting, her project now supports the university education of 11 women, gradually adding students each year. In October, she will double that number.
It's not that hard to help people, she says. "I sell cupcakes for $3."
It all began in 2009, two years after Ms. Christie opened Dr. Bombay’s. A student from the nearby Georgia Institute of Technology came into the shop and began pestering her to go to India and help with a handicraft project.
At first Ms. Christie said she was too busy running her business, but eventually agreed. Once there, she took a side trip to Darjeeling, India, to look at tea plantations, thinking she’d find a new source of tea for the shop.
There she met three girls from an orphanage. They told her they would be forced to leave their orphanage within a year, since it only serves children up to age 16. Their futures seemed grim. Having no parents and nowhere to go, they could end up living on the street, where sex trafficking is one of the few avenues to making money, and where AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) are a big risk.
“I made a bunch of promises,” Christie says. She told them she’d come back in six months and help. Then she had to figure out a way to make it happen. “I didn’t know what to do.”
Back in Atlanta, she put a jar on the counter, asking for money to help. Her shop was filled with used books solicited from customers and others in the surrounding Candler Park neighborhood. Sold for $1 apiece, the books raised money for the local Mary Lin Elementary School. Ms. Christie redirected the book funds toward India.
In six months, she had several thousand dollars – enough to fly to India, rent an apartment for the girls, pay for their tuition at a college prep high school, and get them school uniforms and immunizations.
“They knew what an amazing opportunity it was,” she says.
Since the landlord in Darjeeling would not rent solely to a young woman, Ms. Christie persuaded her father to co-sign the lease.
To keep the project afloat, Ms. Christie began selling packets of tea from Darjeeling, with a notice that the profit went for tuition. She called it The Learning Tea. Her shop also began sponsoring a four-course Indian dinner once a month to raise money.
Every six months, she went back to India. Her plane ticket was one of the biggest expenses. She was struck by how she was able to “do something for someone with so little.”
Each trip she would hear about another girl who needed shelter and wanted to go to college. She added students and the group moved into a larger space – eventually into a free-standing building that has dormitory-style bedrooms with bunk beds. A housemother now lives with them and the accommodations include a kitchen with a refrigerator. The house also has a computer.
Among the girls who live there is one who had medical problems because of malnutrition. Another lost both her parents to TB. Two were sex-trafficked to Nepal, rescued, and brought back.
Ms. Christie knows that big organizations help a larger number of people. But her project is a specialized one. She focuses on college educations for women.
She believes vocational training helps only one generation, she says. A college education allows a woman to pursue a career and, in turn, provide higher education her own children.
“It is the only way I see that you can stop the vicious cycle of intensive poverty in India,” Christie says.
The project has grown steadily. This fall, she will open a residence in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, and provide scholarships and a home for 12 more young women.
• To learn more visit http://thelearningtea.com and http://www.drbombays.com.