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Making a difference

Local residents' support helps improve life for dozens in southern India.

Special to the Enterprise
Davis Enterprise, Sunday March 16, 2008 (page C5)

Davis and Yolo County residents should know that the generous donations they have made to Sahaya International in recent years are truly making a big difference.

Davis-based Sahaya International has as its motto "You can make a difference," and in the case of a village named Andimadam in Tamil Nadu, southern India, that difference has been made in several ways.

Sahaya supporters are sending Vasanthi, an Indian student, to nursing school; are providing low-interest loans for families to construct private toilets in their homes; are sponsoring 100 children - including many AIDS orphans - so they can stay in school, and are supporting the construction of a beautiful new primary school. These are just some of the many ongoing Sahaya projects.

"I couldn't do it without the suport of many generous Yolo County residents and my family and friends in Europe," said Koen Van Rompay, founder of Sahaya International and a researcher at UC Davis.

Van Rompay recently returned from a month-long visit to southern India, where he was reunited with many children and young adults he has gotten to know over the past decade. He also conferred with D. Selvam, the director of READ (Rural Education and Action Development), Sahaya's Indian partner who oversees many on-the-ground projects in Andimadam. Here is the status of just some of the ongoing Sahaya projects:

indian boy
Koen Van Rompay, A UC Davis researcher and founder of Sahaya International, and Kolanchimani, one of his sponsor sons, enjoy an outing at the beach in southern India. Through Sahaya, local residents sponsor 102 children, many of whom are AIDS orphans

Nursing student.

"I met Vasanthi for the first time two years ago," Van Rompay said. "Selvam introduced me to her, explaining that she was near the top of her class and had been accepted to nursing school in Chennai but her family couldn't afford to send her."

A fundraising "Tea for Vasanthi" was held at International House, Davis, in 2006 and nearly $6,000 was raised. Vasanthi entered nursing school.

The nursing student Vasanthi shows children how to bead necklaces at the Sahaya guest house.

"When I met Vasanthi again this past January, it was as if I met a different girl," Van Rompay said. "She has completed two years fof school and is near the top of her class." She is ranked No. 4 in a class of 50. Her classes are taught in English, a language she was not familiar with before she entered the Chidambaram College of Nursing. Vasanthi, now 21, has become a self-confident and poised young woman who is already using her practical education.

In careful English, Vasanthi described helping at a clinic in Chennai (formerly Madras) earlier this year where Rotary International distributed polio vaccines. She will graduate in two more years.

"We'll keep you posted," Van Rompay promised. "A Tea for Vasanthi II, will be held later this year at International House."

Toilets, too

Sahaya helped raise $5,000 to start a toilet fund for the village. When Selvam polled members of women's self-help groups about what kind of toilet would be most useful - a large municipal toilet complex or private at-home toilets - the answer was clear. Families wanted to build outhouses near or at their own homes.
About 100 people have borrowed about $120 each to build an out-house. "This is a successful project," Selvam said.

Mother Teresa School

"For almost the past four years we have been raising money to build a new school," Van Rompay said. In January, I got my first good look at what a beautiful building it will be. It will be ready for the new school year that begins in June." Van Rompay said the whole village is excited about the new school, which replaces a modest two-room hut with a thatched roof.

"Contributions have come from several Sahaya fundraising dinners and from St. James Community Gifts, among others," Van Rompay said. "I wish you could all see this beautiful structure with eight classrooms."

It cost $5,000 to buy the land and $35,000 to construct the school, which will serve 100 children.

Davis resident Valentina Joske and her husband donated $2,000 for a classroom to memorialize her late father-in-law, Henri Joske, a Jew who fled Germany and became a highly respected judge and educator.

school construction
The Mother Theresa School children visit the construction site of their new school building together with Belgian visitors

100 sponsored children

Over the past four years, the number of sponsored children has grown from fewer than 10 to 102. These children, most of them orphans, come from impoverished families, many of which would have been devastated by AIDS. They would not be able to stay in school were it not for help from their sponsors, Van Rompay said.

It costs $30 per month to sponsor a child. A portion of that money - which is used to pay tuition, food and clothing - is set aside so at the end of a year the child's guardian (usually a single parent or grandparent) will have enough capital to buy something that generates income, like a sewing machine or a few goats.

Thanks to the success of the recent Hope Walks event (, which raised more than $9,000, Davis residents are helping even more orphans and HIV-infected children here, including with much-needed medicines.

Last month, when Van Rompay was in India, he and Selvam took these sponsored children to the beach. "Most of these children and even their parent or grandparent had never seen the beach before. It is only two hours away from our village, but a bus ticket is not affordable for most of these families," Van Rompay said.

"It was so heartwarming for me to see all of these kids laughing out of joy while braving the waves and playing in the sand, considering that they have had a difficult childhood, and some of them are HIV-infected. I am confident that these kids continue to carry such feelings of revived hope and happiness with them.

"Now that I am back in Davis, I miss India and the many lovely children a lot," Van Rompay continued. "But at the same time, my good memories instill me with fresh energy to keep going, as this whlole journey is very fulfilling for me.

"I invite Davis residents to get involved and also visit these programs; we built a guesthouse in our village where they can stay."

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