History

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A SMALL DECISION MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE

After teaching for many years in over-crowded government schools, Asha Pandey becomes frustrated with the schools' strict and unimaginative curriculum. She sees that children are not learning effectively. And for the most part, instructors and administrators experience a terrible disconnection with their students.

At government-run schools education is free but the parents have to pay for the uniform and school supplies. Desperately poor families are often forced to forego educating their children. Asha Pandey decides that she wants to remove this financial obstacle, and provides the necessary supplies herself. Besides that classes in government school are very big, often more than 100.

In July 1996 Asha founds Little Stars School with the help and financial support of Chicca Fioretto from Italy, Babaji from Sonoma Ashram in California, Ingrid Jacobson, a Swiss lady Ana and Dale from Australia. Asha approaches the children who live in her own neighborhood.
With the financial help of Ana, Chicca organizes that 24 children from Dasashwamedh Ghat can come by rickshaw. The new school starts on the roof of Asha’s parents’ house in Assi with 35 children and 3 volunteers. Besides Asha there are Uma Pandey and Manisha Upadhyay.

The children’s parents

The children in the neighborhood are eager, but their parents hesitant. Most parents are not educated themselves, and don’t see education as a priority. Even more important, the families need the money the children make at their afternoon jobs. The parents don’t object if the school does not interfere with the children's job.

The children's parents typically drive cycle rickshaws, wash dishes, clean clothes, cook or clean for others, or sweep the streets. Most of these families came to Varanasi from West Bengal, Bihar, or from nearby villages, penniless and searching for work. Like most poor and migrant workers, they settled in the undeveloped areas of town.

The children

The children work from a very early age, picking up trash in front of stores, begging, working at road side stalls selling tea or tobacco, pushing food carts, or labor as domestic servants in wealthier homes. Every member of these families is expected to contribute to the resources, even if this is only a few rupees a day.

Word of Little Stars spreads

Slowly, word of Little Stars spreads among the people of Varanasi's poor neighborhoods. And each day, more children show up. When the school year ends in May'97 there are 70 children attending. The rooftop can no longer fit them all in. For the next school year three rooms and a rooftop are rented in Nagwa Chungi.

At this crucial stage, Asha for Education (AfE) a NGO which is dedicated to supporting alternative education in India, steps in. With this help the school moves to a larger space, and begins to pay teachers who previously had been volunteering. It is possible to purchase more school supplies, and significantly, to provide nutritious food for the children on a daily basis.

 

In 1999, two and a half years since its founding, Little Stars teaches 120 children in seven classes. The children are between 4-14 years of age and impressively for these days, almost half are girls. They come mostly from three impoverished neighborhoods in Varanasi; Assi, Nagwa, and Dasashwamedh. The first two are near the school; children from Dasashwamedh are brought by rickshaw.

 

 

 

 

The classes are divided not by age, but by ability.

There are seven classes: Pre-Nursery, Nursery, Lower Kindergarten, Upper Kindergarten, and Classes 1, 2, and 3. Reading, writing and math are the main subjects taught, although the teachers integrate geography, history, and science into the curriculum. At the end of the day a nutritious meal, usually of chana masala (chick peas with onion and chilies) and/or a piece of seasonal fruit is served to ensure that the children receive at least one good meal a day.

 

 

The school provides uniforms for the children for both hot and colder seasons, so that the children have new clothes twice a year. What's more, if a child becomes sick, money from the ASHA grant can pay for doctor's visits and medicine so that children do not miss school or become more seriously ill due to lack of resources.

 

Hand-picked

The teachers are hand-picked by Mrs. Pandey. She wants educators who understand the special needs and circumstances of the students while appreciating their strengths and talents. In 1998 there are seven teachers employed at the school. Both during the school year and during breaks, the teachers take turns visiting the students' neighborhoods so that they can interact with parents who are unable to come to the school personally. The parents and children are thus networked with the teachers; everyone feels a sense of belonging to a responsible and progressive community.

Little Stars’ own school building

In 1999 Asha Pandey is able to purchase land and starts to build a school. The land and building are funded by a collective of ASHA Chapters across the United States, a successful fund raiser Reema Datta and Baba Harihar Ramji (Babaji) from Sonama Ashram, in California. In January 2001 the school moves into the partially completed building.

Little Stars School gains a FCRA clearance. This is a condition needed by the government of India in order to receive foreign donations.

 

The girls hostel

In 2004 a hostel has been established in the same building. With the financial support of the Agro family from Italy a dormitory, bathroom and kitchen has been build on the 3rd floor of the new school. The hostel starts with 5 girls.

Benares Schoolfund Foundation

In November 2004 Asha meets a Dutch lady, Conny van Staalen-van Leeuwen. Conny and her Benares Schoolfund Foundation (Stichting Benares Schoolfonds www.benaresschool.nl) already support two fee free schools and the Foundation is able to do more. Conny has heard exciting stories about a young and determined lady who is managing a fee free school for poor families with more than 400 students. When Conny is back in Holland, the Foundation decides to support LSS.

 

 

Every year in November Conny and some members of the Benares Schoolfund Foundation (Stichting Benares Schoolfonds) visit Varanasi and talk about the sustainability, quality and future plans of the school. Conny also meets the parents of the day students whom the fund is supporting. The foundation is now a major and very loyal participant amongst the many supporters of LSS, as The Berger and Gupta Foundation both from America and the many, many other private persons who now form the group of Friends of Little Stars School all over the world.

Adding grade 9 and 10

In 2007 the staff of LSS feels the need for students to have the opportunity to include grade 9 and 10 of High School. In government schools the classes are very big, and the fee for books, stationary and uniform is beyond the reach of very poor families. Besides that, students from these families only have real opportunities in small classes (about 30) with the personal attention of the teacher. In 2008 the school adds grade 9. No other fee free school in Varanasi is going beyond class 5.

 

Renovations and Expansion

Little Stars School now has 550 students. The building already needs some renovations and is very overcrowded. There are four classes in one open space! In November 2007 Pierre Satijn, a retired teacher from The Netherlands, volunteers at Little Stars School. When Conny makes her yearly trip to visit the school, they and Asha discuss the schooling situation. Then they set up a plan to build an expansion and to renovate the present building. Pierre promises to be in Varanasi at least 6 month a year to organize and supervise the building construction and renovation. In 2008 Conny and Pierre found the Benares Bouwfonds (Benares Buildingfund Foundation). This fund is specially for renovation and building activities.

 

With the help of the Benares Buildingfund Foundation and money Asha has collected, it is possible to buy a small plot nearby in 2008. In the Netherlands, Conny and Pierre undertake further activities to raise the money.

 

Begging letters

Begging letters have not much result: it seems the needed amount frightens many potential donors. How realistic is that plan?

An exhibition and selling of computer-edited photos of Varanasi in Holland in September 2008 makes people more aware of the project. The money begins to come little by little.

In 2008 starts the renovation of the hostel floor and in October 2009 the preparations for the expansion begin with the demolition of a small brick shed on the building site. In 2009 Little Stars School becomes a 35 AC Category NGO, which means that big Indian companies can now get a special tax exemption on their donations. The promised donations, however, have yet to come: only the Jindal Steel and Power Limited donates Rupees 25,000 every year.

Major contributions

In 2010, the foundation of the new school is laid. The building takes place according to the pace the money is coming. A very big amount comes from Holland, and then a nice sum from Italy. All the time there are visitors from abroad. They see that all the donated money is spent well, and many help us too. We also get wonderful donations from Indian people who see what and with what mission a dream is coming into realization. The basement, ground floor, a small playground, the first and second floor are built in consecutive years. The State Bank of India donates fans for many classrooms.

How generous people can be

There are no major building activities in 2013 due to lack of funding for the next floor, so the focus shifts to renovations in the old school. In the same year, with the support of Rotary Donkenland from the Netherlands in cooperation with Rotary Sunrise from Varanasi, a library and science lab are realized in the new building and a computer lab in the old.

In 2014 we get the donation from Holland to build the third and last floor, including a water tank of 5000 liters. In 2015, the classrooms on the third floor are ready for schooling by July. Joshua’s Heart Foundation in Miami, USA donates the remaining fans and batteries needed.

But at the same time…

At the same time, schooling is going on, the numbers of students is growing, from 450 to 650, to 850 and even the number of hostel girls is increasing. Not only for building purposes funds have to be raised: teachers have to be paid, books and uniforms bought, and girls fed and clothed. The Dutch Benares School fund Foundation is since 2004 a major player and donates almost the half of the costs for schooling. The Gupta Foundation in America supports the school and hostel since 2001, and The Friends of Little Stars Foundation in the UK is founded specifically to support the hostel. Applications for grants are constantly being sent:

Donations are received from The Milagro Foundation, the Berger Foundation, the Asha for Education Foundation, V.S.E.I. (Volunteers in Service to Education in India, Inc.) and Sonoma Ashram in California.

We are proud that so many people from all over the world are willing to the support the school and hostel. Many individuals are always finding us through our website, and often tourists happen upon our school. Moreover, we are also strongly funded by local people and organizations such as Rotary Benares. But still, there is every year a struggle to get the funds we need.

In the hand of God

Asha is always saying that she lays all her activities in the hands of God. There are many Gods in Hinduism, and it seems that all of them are helping generously: a far-fetched dream came real against all odds, and the school and hostel are blooming.

A unique fee free quality education

In the school year 2014-15 we add class 11 and a year later class 12 with the generous financial support from again the Dutch AKBHHH Foundation. Of major interest is also the free participation of Malti-Ma'am, a retired principal from the nearby private school Little Flower House. She volunteers as the head principal at the new building, and her experience and dedication have certainly helped the school there flower! Little Stars School now educates more than 900 students of poor families and is unique in Varanasi. Please remember, Asha Pandey started the school in 1996 with 7 children on the rooftop of her parents' house!

The remaining dreams

The remaining dreams are to continue a quality education and to remain a save haven for girls. We will always need funds for teacher salaries, school materials, hostel costs, and maintenance on our two buildings. In the near future, we hope to create a garden for education purposes on the rooftop of the new building – but first, we need a scheme to protect the garden against the free roaming monkeys! The next step will be to install solar panels can support the 18 batteries in the new building and lower our electricity bills indefinitely.

Updated March 2015

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