Know about Lori MacFadyen and Kunwar Singh – Breaking norms, boundaries and bringing change through education in Garhwal region
Education opens up a world of possibilities for individuals by empowering them with knowledge. It makes people independent, builds confidence and self-esteem, which is very important for the development of a country. Improving the education system and focusing on remotest regions of India, is the need of the hour.
As per the Performance Grading Index (PGI) 2020-21 report, Uttarakhand has been ranked 35th in the country in this index where literacy rate of the state was 78.82%.
There are many who are venturing into projects to support educational centers in rural Uttarakhand, but it’s not easy to reach into villages where terrains are difficult.
Lori McFadyen and Kunwar Singh stepped out of their comfort zone to change the face of their village near Mussoorie.
Lori Chauhan McFadyen is a Canadian. She grew up in a small town in Ontario. She had five siblings and parents who worked hard to give them a good life. Her mother ran a beauty salon from home and from age eight, Lori would help her mother while baking. It was through Lori’s mom’s hard work that the family home was built and paid for. She encouraged her children to seek higher education and to make something of their lives. Her family supported and encouraged Lori to follow her calling.
When Lori passed out of high school, she enrolled in a community college to learn how to become a professional photographer. She took a job in the photo retail business, but quickly climbed the company ladder to join their human resources department and to become the staff trainer for Western Canada.
In 1989, she decided to leave her job and travel the world. She sold her worldly possessions and traveled to Spain, Morocco, Italy, Egypt and Israel, where she volunteered on a Kibbutz for six months. After returning to Canada, Lori decided to return to school to become a teacher. But in her first year of university she took a class in Anthropology which really appealed to her. She was deeply attracted to what she learnt about India and decided to get a group together and visit India with her professor.
She first arrived in India in 1998 as part of that field school. During the six week stay, she visited the major tourist attractions, but was saddened to watch the plight of street children. A year later she returned with some friends to learn more about the plight of underprivileged children. She and her friends established an NGO in Canada called, ‘Children Go to School’ whose mission was to ensure education for all children. Over the course of the year, she and her cohorts raised enough funds to start a school in a slum area of Gurgoan, outside of New Delhi.
While in India, Lori continued to educate herself about children and poverty, and under the guidance of Kailash Satyarthi’s foundation, she and her cohorts visited many industries employing children, such as the brick kilns, carpet and silk weaving industries, bangle factories, etc. Every summer for four years she traveled back to India to oversee the school activities.
During her masters’ degree, her main focus was to understand how street children managed their lives. Hence, for six months she volunteered with the Salaam Baalak Trust Organization for Street Children in Delhi and every day interacted with the street children living at the New Delhi Railway station, and at Hanuman Mandir. Her MA thesis was later published in 2005, entitled ‘Voices From the Street: An Ethnography of India’s Street Children’.
It was from this body of research that Lori’s interest in the lives of village children grew. In 2006 she returned to India to begin her language training at the Landour Language School in Mussoorie for her PhD, and to search for an appropriate village to conduct her study. In the fall of 2007 she moved to the village of Kolti, a one and a half hours’ walk down the mountain from Mussoorie.
While in Kolti, Lori quickly learned that the children here were not unhappy and family units were strong, yet there were issues of no roads, villagers were depending on subsistence farming, and milk was carried up the mountain by mule or on the backs of village men, to sell in Mussoorie. People were struggling to make ends meet, and Health care was non-existent.
Lori got involved with locals , provided medical help, set up a play center with nutritional meals, in her own home. Her house became an informal health clinic as villagers came to her for minor issues and often she accompanied them to hospital and gave financial help too.
What disturbed her was to learn that girl child education was neglected and they were pushed into doing house work very early in life, to support the family.
Lori soon collected funds and established sewing classes for young women in the evenings to add to their income after marriage. Through Christmas gifts from her family, she arranged funds for woolens and shoes for all the children and women in Kolti village.
Fate played its role and Lori met Kunwar. Kunwar arrived one rainy night at Lori’s cottage in Landour, to introduce himself, as he had heard about her work. They soon learnt that they had a lot in common with similar goals and over time the affinity grew. Kunwar got more involved in helping Lori with her social initiatives and discovered that their commitment to bring change in villages was their binding factor.
Kunwar had a past history with this region.
Kunwar was born and raised in the small village of Sainji. Losing his father at age 5, he experienced extreme hardship and would walk barefoot for kilometers to attend the only school in his village. Seeing his eagerness to study, his relative invited him to Delhi at age 10 and thereafter in the early 1980s to Sainji Village and got involved with NGOs like Dr.Olsens, working in that region. Over time, he successfully invited medical teams to deal with child mortality, immunizations and health education programs etc which had long term benefits. He then moved to creating connecting roads to Mussoorie which made life more comfortable for his people.
He was elected to be their Pradhan and this gave him the opportunity to bring about further improvements. Remembering his own struggles, providing educational facilities to the village children was his priority. With no government support, he actually took over teaching the children himself and later, when there was no positive response from appointed Government teachers, he invited a Missionary run NGO to start up a school in Sainji.
He dealt with alcoholism which led to high mortality rates, bringing in addiction workshops that soon brought in the change in mental and physical health of locals.
In his 30 years journey working with his village, he has brought in positive development with various initiatives along with better farming techniques, irrigation systems, bee keeping, solar power, sewage disposal systems, toilets, healthcare, family planning and hygiene awareness workshops. Today every house has been electrified thanks to Kunwar. The village paths and local squares have been paved and creates awareness amongst youth to keep their village clean.
For 14 years he was Pradhan over 7 villages, and then Zila Panchayat member for 50 villages of Jaunpur Block. Even though it has been15 years since he held this post ,he is still greeted by villagers throughout the area, as ‘Pradhan Ji’, and is shown the greatest respect and hospitality.
Changemakers give themselves the permission to do something about a social problem, and keep trying until they have made a difference. Lori and Kunwar wanted to serve their community and bring change.
As they say, ‘Love has no Boundaries’- Lori and Kunwar’s marriage in 2008 was destined. Lori was accepted with open hearts by Kunwars family and they supported her initiatives. Together, they created an NGO called the Garhwal Organization for Uplifting the Needy, GOUN (meaning ‘village’). GOUN tries to provide opportunities for villagers to improve their lives. They created job opportunities by conducting training workshops under various projects like doll making, and soap from goats milk.
One of the main reasons destiny brought them together was for their most ambitious project – the development of the ‘Garhwal English Medium School’.
Initially 8 students joined and within one year, they had 86. And today the school strength is over 125 children, aged 3 to 14 years of age and includes classes from playgroup to class 8. The school curriculum includes; English Literature, English Grammar, English as a Second Language, Hindi, Math, Mental Math, Social Studies, Science, Computer, Arts and Crafts, Music, Film, Drama, and Physical Education.
The Garhwal English Medium School is a not for profit school running for more than 14 years now. The children are from very poor homes, but Lori and Kunwar realized that these children had the ambition and dream to be successful one day.
14 years ago, they started in a cow shed, and now they have 126 children and have made a new school building, which is an ongoing project and still under construction. It includes 10 classrooms, a computer room, bathrooms, office and they have a bus to transport all our children to the 15 different villages in which they come from. The children know the value of a good education, and what it can do not only for them, but their families and communities as well.
Lori says that in the villages, usually the female students were not invested upon. The only agenda was to get them married off and get relieved of the stress. The students themselves would say that their goals were to become a wife and mother in future. But after coming to the Gems school, now their perspectives have changed. They are looking at becoming doctors and taking up better jobs.
Running the school with no major sponsorship was not easy. Expenses keep piling up and whatever funds come through friends and donors, are never enough. She has floated sponsorship requests for these children where each child can be sponsored for fees, bus fare, etc.
To meet the expenses, now Lori has established a bakery / cafe and the revenue is used to run the school. She has also opened the school for volunteers to support teaching projects. Many volunteers come from other parts of India and abroad to teach the students. Lori and Kunwar share their experiences and help to change the mindset of people in general.
Lori, a foreigner, Canadian. Kunwar Singh, a Pradhan, son of the soil from Uttrakhand, village Sainji. Universe connected them to bring change in the lives of hundreds in their village and brighten the future of thousands of children.
The people who dare to dream, and dare to pursue their dreams, are the real change-makers.
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