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Association for India’s Development Lewisburg: Education, Life-Sustaining Skills & Hope

Mar 19, 2018 05:07PM

Making the Onam Pookkalam: Onam is a Kerala harvest festival, celebrated by making a temporary mandala of flowers and rice and by feasting.

Gallery: AID Lewisberg [12 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Jennifer Pencek

Sajini and her husband Matthews. Sajini is the moving force behind the hostel, but Matthews is also untiringly dedicated to the mission of protecting, nurturing and educating tribal and dalit girls.

Founded by Sajini Mathews and her husband Mathews, Snehibhavan—which means house of love—is a home for girls and women of Tribal and Dalit origin, with backgrounds of extreme poverty and a vulnerability to abuse. Dalits are formally known as India’s “untouchables.”

For some Lewisburg, PA, community members, supporting the home and helping the girls secure an education, life purpose and sense of belonging has grown into a passion.
Looking back

The Lewisburg chapter of AID (Association for India’s Development) was founded in summer 2007 to support Snehibhavan.

“I went on a trip to India for a month and stayed with a woman named Lalu Philip, who lived in Lewisburg when her husband was a visiting professor [at Bucknell University],” said Paula Closson Buck, vice president and founder of AID Lewisburg.

“I was interested in orphanage work,” Closson Buck continued, “and Lalu took me up this mountain to a home where a couple was supporting 13 girls, many of them the children of sex workers. The home was in crisis financially, and the girls were saying if sex work was good enough for their mothers it would have to be good enough for them. Lalu and I went home that night and said we had to do something.”

That “something” became the founding of The Jackfruit Project, which evolved into AID Lewisburg. Ten years later, with an annual operating budget of $22,000, AID Lewisburg provides the girls of Snehibhavan with a healthy diet, ongoing education and tutoring, counseling, classes in skills from tailoring to self-defense, and career mentoring. The journey has not been easy.

“There were really rough years where we had to navigate bureaucracy for the organization to receive funds from abroad,” said Closson Buck. “We knew that if we gave up, these girls wouldn’t eat. Part of the vision early on was to do something that would help them be self-sustaining.”


Land and a purpose

That early vision is now becoming reality. Thanks to a generous bequest from Sally Nyquist, a retired Bucknell University professor who passed away a year ago, AID Lewisburg facilitated in spring 2017 the purchase of 10 acres in the nearby tea-growing region of Vagamon.

Some food for the hostel comes from a small garden plot near the hostel. Sajini proudly displays beans she picked.

Closson Buck and AID Lewisburg president Kathi Hannaford visited the girls’ home in January 2017 prior to the purchase of the land to meet with Sajini, her husband and local supporters to develop strategies to utilize the funds. Consultants based in Kerala helped the team develop a comprehensive plan for the land, which includes six phases of development. The goal is to create a farm that will provide not only food for the home and produce to sell, but also space for cultural exchanges and agritourism. Ponds have been dug; roads reinforced; and tea, cardamom, nutmeg, pepper, coconut and fruit trees planted.

Later stages will include developing on-site food processing and building traditional huts on the property to open up possibilities for ecotourism in the form of farm stays.

“They see the farm as a local employer,” Hannaford said. “In this area, where many people do not have work, giving more Dalit and Tribal people work is really exciting for them.”

Facilities project

Besides the farm project, AID Lewisburg has seen the expansion of the home itself, including the building of a new dormitory and living space for the girls, completed in January 2017.

“Kathi and I were the first ones to sleep in the new building,” Closson Buck said. “It has three dorm rooms and a guest room. There is also a big foyer area where they get together to sing and do activities. They built it in a such a way that there can be two other floors someday. They’d love to have a public meeting space and dedicated study space.”

Hannaford added that Sajini, who serves as director of the home and is a Dalit, is a person of amazing energy and dedication. She is joined by a farm manager, cook, tutor and an administrative assistant to help keep the home thriving.

“Sajini is driven to do the right thing,” Hannaford said, “so, there is always a need. She wants to help as many girls as she can and to help them reach their fullest potential. She inspires them to take pride in their culture and their people.”

Planting tea at the new farm site. The sustainable farm initiative is intended to help make Snehibhavan self-supporting and to provide local employment.

 

Impact from near and far

Several members from AID Lewisburg have visited the girls’ home, as have members of other AID chapters. Hannaford and Closson Buck stress there is a need for longer-term volunteers to help the girls with English skills and work on the farm.

While Rosaria Gabriele has never visited the home or farm, she is proud to have played a role in the project’s success from afar. Gabriele, based in Lewisburg, has been involved with AID Lewisburg for the past seven years and is an appointed member of the executive committee. She was initially attracted to AID Lewisburg after attending dinner-fundraisers organized by Nyquist, and became increasingly interested after learning all funds raised go directly to the girls and the home’s operation.

“We all want to see this project move forward and need continued help to meet the budget,” she said. “The girls’ futures have been opened up to them. Part of our support is to help the girls get further education, and now we are seeing the fruits of that by knowing the older girls are getting professional jobs.”

For more information on AID Lewisburg and how to help, please visit aid-lewisburg.weebly.com.


Jennifer Pencek is a freelance writer based in State College and programming coordinator of Penn State’s Gender Equity Center.

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