Shanti Bhavan, a haven of peace

“Success is nothing unless you use it to help others.”

A 13 year old said that to me on my first day at Shanti Bhavan and it has been ingrained in my brain ever since. I spent 5 weeks teaching at a K-12 residential school in the outskirts of Tamil Nadu, India which focuses on children from impoverished backgrounds. The thinking is that by empowering these children with education they will be able to take control of their lives and bring positive change to their families and communities, eventually breaking the cycle of poverty.

Shanti Bhavan takes in children early on at age 4 (Pre-K) and supports them until they graduate college. In order to minimize formation of cultural cliques based on their native tongue or place of origin, they are taught in English from early on and are discouraged from speaking to each other in any other languages. The criteria for the children to be accepted into the school is that their family falls under the poverty threshold (household income less than $2 a day) with preference to single parents and family commitment to keeping the child in school for the entirety of the program.

The school hires full-time staff for teaching the core subjects (English Literature, Biology, Chemistry, Accounting, second languages such as Tamil, Hindi, etc.) and recruits volunteers to fill the gaps wherever needed. I was teaching Economics (11th grade) and History (6th grade) to start, both challenging in their own ways. Let’s just say I’ve never had more respect for all of the teachers I had growing up.

My days were a packed schedule starting bright and early at 6:30am practicing basketball or soccer with 5th-6th grade, a time they referred to as “PT” or Physical Training. At this time 9th-12th grade would prepare for their days classes, either studying for exams or completing assignments.

At 7:30am, everyone congregated in the dining hall for breakfast. All meals were cooked by a talented kitchen staff (most were parents of a child attending the school), and made from ingredients organically grown on the Shanti Bhavan property.

From 8:30am to 3:30pm the kids were in classes, with a break for assembly and lunch. During periods I was not teaching 6th and 11th grade, I would tutor and assist with extra-curricular activities (debate, arts, leadership, etc.), giving me a ton of opportunities to connect with children across all grades. I spent time teaching music and dance to 2nd-5th graders, running sessions about Girls Leadership for 8th-12th grade girls, tutoring 2nd graders in Math and teaching the preschoolers shapes and colors. By the end of my time in the school I got to know almost every one of the 200 or so students there.

From 5 to 6pm the younger children (Pre-K to 4th grade) would play outside while 5th-6th grade completed their chores. This was easily my favorite time of the day, getting to play with the kids and talk to them about their families and life outside of Shanti Bhavan. You would never guess just from interacting with the students the types of backgrounds they come from or even that English was not their native tongue.

What continued to surprise me was the amount of love these kids had to give to each other and everyone around them. They seemed unfazed by volunteers coming and going, but rather filled of contagious joy and curiosity to get to know a new one each time.

At 7:30pm the students along with the entire staff would eat dinner together in the dining hall. Students had assigned seating during meals, girls and boys sitting separately and by grade. Dinner was the only meal we would sit with the students instead of at the volunteer table, an additional opportunity to bond with them outside the classroom. I’ll never forget their excitement, screaming “Miss, sit with us!” as we walked into the dining hall each and every day. After dinner the volunteers would read story books to the younger children until 9pm, when we would return to the Staff Room and prep for the next day of classes.

Although there were many takeaways from this experience, I think the biggest one was that children are very resilient and high-caliber education can do wonders. It was surreal to see their growth over such a short period of time and I can only imagine what is in store for their futures. What is unique about Shanti Bhavan compared to other schools in India is the amount of exposure the children get to people from around the world who come to volunteer. I see quite a difference in the social skills they have developed and think this gives them an advantage if they ever decide to pursue opportunities outside of India. This graduating class had the first student in all these years who was accepted into a US college on a full scholarship! Being able to cherish moments like that with them along with so many of their “first experiences” that I take for granted (e.g. trying a donut, traveling up an escalator, jumping on a trampoline) was so amazing that I am still at a loss of words in describing them.

For those of you who are interested in learning more about the school and foundation, I encourage you to visit https://shantibhavanchildren.org/. If you have a couple of hours to spare, there is a four-part Netflix documentary titled “Daughters of Destiny” which documents the experience of 5 young girls and how Shanti Bhavan transformed their lives — it even features one of the girls I had the pleasure of teaching! It’s incredible to see a vision like this one come to life and the documentary depicts the experience quite accurately.

Overall it was an eye-opening and humbling experience — I look forward to staying involved with the school in the future. I can say without a doubt that I learned more from these students than I will ever be able to teach them. Shanti Bhavan will forever hold a special place in my heart.

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