Jane Richter, HOPE UK supporter and fundraiser, visited several of HOPE’s projects in late 2022.
*Jane discovered HOPE during the extensive research for her film called Cameron, Coffee & Calcutta; A Traveller’s Tales about the life of pioneer Victorian photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. From Jane’s research, she discovered strong links to Kolkata and, as a result, kindly donates any funds raised at the film screenings to HOPE. In 2022, she visited Kolkata for over three weeks and spent time at HOPE’s projects.
Here Jane writes about her experience of visiting several of HOPE’s projects in Kolkata.
HOPE’s Project: Brian’s Way
The first project I visited was Brian’s Way, which caters for service users with special needs. Ramanika Nandy is in charge of a programme, helping around 100 children from financially marginalised and vulnerable families for whom access to therapies for their children’s needs is unaffordable. The children are provided with a step-by-step assessment over a three-month period, with targets and goal setting, and they are then offered therapies, which include physio, occupational, speech and movement and behavioural. The programme is open five days a week from 10.30 – 16.30 hrs.
As many of the children are in schools, the support is provided there too and is all free. The service was started in 2018/19 and funded by a private Irish donor with HOPE supporting and implementing the programme. It is difficult for them [the families] to access public transport and so they have their own specially adapted bus. This centre is in Lake Gardens, next to Tollygunge, but children come from all over South Calcutta. They now have a second centre in Howrah, new since last September and thus currently only had 26 service users at the time of my visit.
HOPE is the only organisation offering this therapy support and their paid staff (two at Brian’s Way) work alongside other paid HOPE Teams, who work all over the city (around 500 are involved in many different projects). In school settings, the staff from this project also work with children who have learning gaps, not just disabilities, which includes those with little or no former experience of education. This means also working with teaching staff (first contact with government schools was back in 2014) and thus Brian’s Way staff run training sessions for school staff also. At first there was some resentment amongst the latter group, but now this collaboration is much welcomed, and teachers will make the approach themselves when they need help.
From Brian’s Way we moved on to the Chetla Centre ‘Naboasha’ (meaning ‘New Hope’), one of seven such centres within the project; each located in a different slum area.
Local children are registered here and take lessons. They are then enrolled in formal school but continue to come here for a daily support after, or sometimes before, school. There are 78 children here, learning Maths, Science, History, Geography, General Knowledge, Bengali, Hindi and English.
It is a remedial coaching centre with two community support groups, one for parents and a Child Vigilance Group, both groups dealing with general issues surrounding children’s rights and child protection. In the case of the adults, this includes child marriage, addiction, child labour and trafficking, where to go to get help, what to do, Child Helpline etc.
The aim is to motivate other parents to enrol their children in school, thereby expanding the reach of education. They encourage parents to save money for their children’s futures – thereby reducing the likelihood of falling prey to addiction themselves.
The Child Vigilance Group learns much of the same, in an appropriate form, as well as how to find and use their voice. They are encouraged to share their thoughts and views and to have a general peer effect on their friends. They too learn what is an acceptable age to marry, how to contact Child Line, how to go about getting a job and about the devastating effects of addiction. The two full-time teachers here also have a social worker role and visit the children’s families at home.
The children learn about general health and illnesses including Malaria, Dengue and Covid-19, which motivates them to get vaccinated. They learn to foster healthy living practices, starting with basic handwashing. The centres were closed during the pandemic, but teachers delivered online lessons. Mobile phones were distributed at this time to those who didn’t have one. A teacher-counsellor and an art teacher give emotional support to children three times a week, either as a group or individual.
After school, children come in for extra nutrition, perhaps a cupcake, piece of fruit or whatever. Living as they do in family units of around seven or eight people, they seldom get a whole fruit to themselves at home.
On day two, Gora and Johnny took me to visit Panditya Crèche, which looks after 43 children aged 2- 5 years from the slum in Panditya Place.
Open Monday to Friday from 10am until 2pm, they offer training in nine skills, which include personal hygiene, communication and self-expression. Lisa Sarkar (pictured) is the crèche co-ordinator. She works in four different crèches, visiting each one once to twice a week. She monitors activities, as well as carrying out admin work related to each child. At monthly parent meetings, she urges them to open bank accounts to save for the children’s futures, even if they deposit no more than 100 rupees per month.
There are four activity corners where children can engage with drama, creative, reading and puzzle-making and storytelling.
Most of their parents work in casual labour jobs such as domestic helps and taxi drivers. They enjoy a healthy lunch here and feel completely happy and safe in the company of the friendliest staff imaginable.
One small group of children has just joined, who previously spent all day in prison alongside their parents. Another child lives with her family under a nearby bridge, but now finds herself in a safe environment during the day, at least. A lot of role-play activities are practised, e.g. playing at celebrating ‘Doctors’ Day’ so that when they need to see a doctor themselves, they aren’t afraid. The centre also organises an annual Sports Day at a local open space, to which the parents are invited.
Life Skills Training Institute
This neighbouring next port of call was an amazing experience for me personally thanks to Renu Singh, who runs the programme, and the immediate rapport we established.
Her fun-loving nature combined with her utter professionalism and versatility, together with the seriously good food, helps make the cafe a bustling, energetic place of fellowship and camaraderie. She trains her young team to a standard of excellence with patience and love.
As much as I immediately gravitated towards a table and food, I was first whisked upstairs to witness the hidden-away flurry of activity that constituted the delivery of the tailoring and beautician training courses. Both are clearly hugely popular!
English teaching is also on hand and the respective courses lead to formal accreditation. A job placement service is on offer, although the participants may end up working from home.
Downstairs, I was invited to take a peak into the kitchens to meet some of the trainees there before partaking of their delightful food and drink (for which I returned as often as I could manage!).
The final stop for the day was another Nabo Asha (New Hope) Centre; this one being Gariahat. Gouri Pandit is the Programme Manager of all seven centres and makes a weekly visit to each for monitoring purposes.
Here there are two full-time teachers and 80 children, and the structure is the same as the Chetla Centre, which I have already described. Whereas Chetla is totally connected to the slum, this one is a mixture of slum-dwelling and street-connected children. They all go to school but come here after it finishes.
Most are first generation learners, meaning that their parents are illiterate. In Year 10, some have a sponsorship programme to support their education, when the parents are unable to finance it.
A new day dawned and we headed northwards to the district of Chitpur and HOPE’s Chitpur Centre.
Most people close by originate from Bangladesh – it is a third generation, densely populated Muslim community. The men tend to be unskilled labourers and the women, domestic helps. They also collect glass and old medicine bottles etc. Approximately 300 – 400 families live in the area, each averaging 10 to 15 people, housed in a shack of roughly 60 square feet.
The crèche is open from 10am – 2pm. Most of the children attend mainstream schools and HOPE also runs a homework club here from 2pm – 5pm. HOPE has three full-time staff in the crèche and two in the after-school club. The lunch is provided by the local ‘hotel’ (which means food vendors, not accommodation providers). During lockdown, HOPE helped provide food for the whole community by supplying them with large quantities of rice etc.
As with the other HOPE crèches, the lovely Lisa Sarkar is the co-ordinator. Before I left, the children performed a touching rendition of the Indian national anthem for me. This was written in Sanskrit by India’s great Bengali poet Tagore (who also wrote the national anthem of Bangladesh in Bengali). The only person in the world to write the national anthems of two countries!
Education on Wheels
A few minutes’ walk down the road from the Chitpur Centre we found the Education on Wheels project. Here too, most of the 60 registered children are first-generation learners, whose parents include day labourers, rickshaw pullers, domestic workers and recyclers of old glass, bottle caps and medicine strips.
As usual, the children attend school in the morning (6.30am – 11am in this case) and then come here, usually for an hour. The centre timings are 10am – 6pm. They come in batches as space is limited. Each child is given ‘tiffin’ – a nutritious snack.
The educational support on offer comes in many forms and includes various extra-curricular activities such as singing, dancing and drawing, as well as psychological and other types of counselling for both children and parents. Their regular staffing consists of two teachers, one counsellor, one bus driver and helper (although the bus has been static lately, rather than touring round). Once again, Gouri Pandit takes overall charge.
They also have a Community Support Group here like the one in Chetla, as well as a vigilance group for the children. Each group consists of 10 people. These representatives are trained in different issues, including awareness of relevant government schemes etc; and they then in turn train their peer groups. They also run occasional awareness camps and monthly parent-teacher meetings.
Here too they identify the first-generation learners within the community and register them here for three months of tuition, before enrolling them in a local school. Thereafter, the children continue to attend this project each day after school finishes, so that their learning can be reinforced and monitored, thereby significantly reducing their educational disadvantage.
Bhagar Crèche makes provision for 120 pre-school children, split in half according to age, across two nearby sites. Both are close to the dumping ground, which we walked to the outer edge of.
It is often the mothers who are the main breadwinners in these families, sifting through the rubbish to see what they can find to sell or reuse. Since the centre opened, they have left their children here. Before this they took them to the dump with them, meaning that the children spent long hours in an extremely unhealthy environment.
The families, on average consisting of ten people, do not have enough money for food. So what the children get to eat at the crèche is vital. Its opening hours are from 10am – 2pm. There may be cake or bread and jam on arrival and, later on, something like rice and either chicken or egg curry.
When the children first started coming, many were underweight and had health issues, but as their time at the crèche has progressed, this has radically improved. They are all first-generation learners.
When the crèche started in 2008, HOPE went to the dump to identify appropriately aged children, to bring them to the centre. Now, their families bring them as a matter of course. After the parents leave for work the older children in the family look after their younger siblings until the crèche opens and then drop them off. They then pick these little ones up again after their own school finishes, taking them home and caring for them until their parents return, usually between 3pm and 4pm.
In the centre, the youngsters develop cognitive and fine motor skills etc. The ‘four corner system’ for skills development is also used here. One student is a TB patient, so she is taught at home and food is taken over to her.
The additional building is newer and bigger than the first. It is a modernised community centre, which has been refurbished by another NGO that uses it in the afternoons.
HOPE Sponsorship Programme
The Liluah Sishu Bidhyapith private school is another amazing project. Around 500 children attend, of whom at least 280 (if not more) are paid for by HOPE. This means fees, books, tuition and uniform, and also includes a monthly nutrition pack. They also give a festival dress for Durga Puja, as well as a winter dress and Christmas gift. All religious festivals are celebrated because – in project leader Gautam Ghosh’s own words – “that makes for happy children!”
Extra tuition support is available to all. School is open from 11.30am to 5.30pm, Monday to Friday. These children are all paid for by individual HOPE sponsors. One hour of after-school support is also offered to 330 children who go to the local government school, delivered by four teachers.
Some of the children attending the private school go on to good jobs and Gautam, who has been in charge here for seven years, is immensely proud. He spent some considerable time in his office with me talking me through his photograph boards, which chronicle many events and achievements of individual students e.g. getting into prestigious universities such as Presidency College (where several past students are currently studying) or gaining jobs with big companies/corporations such as HDFC and Vodafone. One girl even landed herself a job as far away as Mumbai!
Many parents are rag-pickers and often it is only the mothers who work. Some fathers are daily workers, but sadly some are alcoholics who don’t work and drink away any meagre earnings that the family might have.
Thus, it tends to be the mothers in particular who crave a better life for their children, which starts with a good job, and on a daily basis several appear in his office to beg Gautam “please sponsor my child”. A case history will then be gathered and sent off to the HOPE office for sponsorship consideration. Each child has their own individual sponsor with whom they form a relationship. The sponsors are from Ireland, the UK or more recently the USA.
Hope Hospital has 40 beds – 30 of which are for homeless people. Of these, five are set aside for surgical procedures and five for those who are critically ill. Ten ICU (Intensive Care Unit) ones are made available for ‘middle class patients’. The hospital has a staff of around 100 (40 are medical, of whom 35 are consultants who also attend outpatient departments once a week. Forty-five are paramedics and 20 are non-medical).
Seventy percent of the running costs are self-generated, e.g. by income from the 10 beds for those who can afford the hospital’s charges (which are still considerably lower than average) or from profits from the hospital pharmacy, which is open to the general public. The remaining 30% of the funding is donated mainly via The Hope Foundation Ireland. There are also big UK sponsors of the hospital (e.g. Specsavers, which funds the eye unit) as well as private individuals. The hospital also has sponsors and ongoing support from many other countries – such as Germany and Italy and yet further afield, but not forgetting India itself. It costs 600,000 euros a year to run the hospital – the equivalent of one UK surgeon’s salary, yet this money benefits 25,000 people!
How did this hospital come about? There is someone very important yet to be mentioned…but that will be a separate entry in a few days’ time. For now, suffice it to say that the hospital opened in 2008. HOPE’s Nightwatch Programme (an equipped ambulance which drives round at night, assessing and catering for the urgent needs of the homeless) is the primary healthcare support for street dwellers.
The scarcity of beds in government hospitals means that there is only one available for every 746 patients who need it. Moreover, an ID card is necessary for admission and the homeless don’t have them, hence they will never get a bed. Thus, this hospital is the only one of its kind in Kolkata, which admits the homeless. This fact needs some processing! As does the fact that there are now 90 charities from all over West Bengal working with Hope Hospital.
I had a wonderfully long chat with Samiran and Arpita over coffee and incredible biscuits! This resulted in my learning a few additional interesting facts – notably they don’t deal with heart surgery here. Indeed, the homeless have very few heart problems, so we discussed the reasons for this… many of which are clearly diet-related, which made us think about our biscuits!
A second interesting fact was that not a single patient died of COVID! This is because this community has such good immunity. In fact, during the pandemic, the hospital was converted into a COVID facility that treated more than 500 (non-homeless) people. (The Irish government amazingly donated 100,000 Euros to the hospital at this time and Halfords UK Ltd 117,000 Euros.) The final interesting topic we discussed was TB, and the fact that in India this spreads freely through the air through people coughing. Samiran says that everyone in India has it but in an extremely mild form, and it is held at bay by BCG vaccinations. But the poor people, who are not getting regular food, ARE affected and this disease IS a very real problem for street dwellers.
This was my last stop with Gora – but the story isn’t quite over yet!
Throughout my three and a half week stay in Kolkata, I felt very much part of a family, both when visiting HOPE projects and when showing my film * Cameron, Coffee & Calcutta; A Traveller’s Tales.
I really can’t recommend the Executive Suite, Tollygunge (Kolkata) highly enough for anyone looking for a home from home environment in which to stay. Rupasree Hajra runs this lovely establishment, together with her wonderful husband Ashok and beautiful, hugely musically talented daughter Rohini Hajra. To me, personally, they have now become good friends. Heartfelt thanks – not just to them but to HOPE’s amazing Gora (at HOPE) for recommending them in the first place.
But the Hajras are no strangers to HOPE themselves. Rupa and Rohini both work with the ‘Girl 2B’ project, which is independent from HOPE, yet connected to it at the same time. It falls under the category of a HOPE Education Support Unit. Thirty girls, aged 7 – 18, attend; they are all first-generation learners from marginalised backgrounds who attend government schools. They come to Girl2B after or before school for a couple of hours for extra-curricular activities. The children all receive tiffin packs.
The project was started in 2017 by an American couple. The Unit is open from Monday to Saturday and has three full-time teachers alongside part-time ones (for example Rohini who teaches music). Rupa is an advisory member, while the Unit is led by Bulbuli Sinha. The other teachers are Reeti Bagchi and Tanusree Bera, and Sabita Roy teaches Maths.
The staff are also involved in an Empowerment Programme supporting more than 50 girls in training or employment. This programme – which involves Loreto College – enables five selected 21-year-old girls to go to study in the United States for two semesters.
Maureen Forrest and the history of HOPE
This is the final post about the Hope Kolkata Foundation. I haven’t yet mentioned Maureen Forrest, its founder who (luckily for me) happened to be in Kolkata at the same time, so I was fortunate enough to get to know her.
Maureen set up the Hope Foundation Ireland in 1999, and this was followed by the UK branch in 2007. It all started with just 19 children.
Hope Hospital was started in 2008, as already mentioned and was a direct result of Maureen, a frequent visitor to Kolkata, trying in vain one night to get a street-dwelling child admitted to hospital (unsuccessfully – for reasons outlined in a previous post).
When Maureen returned home to Ireland she told friends about it, and together they vowed to do something about the situation. As mentioned, HOPE has links to many charities throughout Kolkata and beyond, one being the ‘Missionaries of Charity’ founded by Mother Teresa (who don’t have their own hospital, so often transfer patients to Hope Hospital).
Hope Hospital doesn’t have a home for elderly patients to transfer to where necessary upon discharge from hospital. So, they are able to help each other! Coincidentally, Maureen actually met Mother Teresa many times. However, the organisations are very different indeed. For a start, HOPE, isn’t religious in any way. But what it IS, within Kolkata, is very well-known. I was really surprised – everybody in Kolkata who I spoke to (bar one, who promptly googled the charity and was “bowled over by its ‘transparency”) had heard of HOPE.
And nobody had anything bad to say about it either – only good! HOPE can be really proud to have invested around 40 million Euros into Kolkata’s economy. What an amazing achievement!
I personally am thrilled to have spent time with the team at HOPE and to have got to know some of them. My heartfelt thanks to everyone I met, and to those I didn’t. And for sure, I will continue to use my film as a way of fundraising for HOPE, whenever and wherever I can. If anyone reading this would like to arrange a screening for HOPE, please get in touch. This applies whether you are in the UK, India or indeed elsewhere…You never know what can be done!
I hope I have given you a good idea of what your donation will help these wonderful people achieve. Around a third of the population of Kolkata live in abject poverty. This charity makes an enormous difference to their lives, offering them education, shelter, medical help, food and accommodation as required. And more than that – love. And hope – always hope for a brighter future. But that can’t be done without OUR help. Please consider donating or supporting HOPE, if you possibly can.
Bless you all, HOPE team – and don’t stop this incredible work!
I am truly convinced that both Julia and Charles Cameron would have been whole-hearted supporters of HOPE! The team are simply amazing. I am so grateful to everyone concerned for taking the time and energy to show me round and give their time in the various projects I visited in Kolkata.