Newsletter 2007 (No. 5)

Charitable status

Irene Beck and pupils
Irene Beck and pupils

Gaining charitable status was probably the most significant event to take place this year. Until January 2007, when we became registered as a charity, HELP had been run as a not-for-profit company. Gratifyingly, the Charity Commission approved our application without requesting any change in the way we operate. We remain a limited company, but now with charitable status. I am pleased to report that I have recently received a cheque for £1,672 from Inland Revenue under the GiftAid scheme, which represents a tax refund on payments made since 2003 by our taxpaying UK benefactors. That’s got to be good news!

Inspection visits

February 2007: Inspection visits are always the highlight of the year for me, since they give me an excuse to revisit the Himalayas! This time, my wife, Yamima, and I escaped the British winter for a month in January and sunned ourselves in Kerala before going up north for the serious HELP stuff in February, and finding ourselves back in winter and even snow.

Sikkimese boy
Sikkimese boy
First day at school
First day at school

We visited most of the schools we are supporting in West Bengal and Sikkim, which enabled us to update ourselves on developments at the schools since our last visit, and to remind the schools that I am not just a voice on the telephone, or a name at the bottom of an email.

We also managed to get to Dehra Dun in Uttarkhand (as Uttaranchal is now known), and I was able to meet, for the first time, my contacts there. (My son Alan had made first contact in 2005). We tried to drive up the mountain to the old British hill station of Moussourie, but were driven back by snow on the first attempt! We just made it to the edge of the town on the second day, and had to make our way into the town on foot.

October 2007: Not content with all that, Yami and I also visited Ladakh (which Alan had also first surveyed on his 2005 visit). Fortunately, two HELP volunteers were still in their schools, so I was able to take some photos of them in context. I was very impressed by their commitment, enthusiasm, and love for Ladakh and its people, and also by the high regard their hosts held them in.

Of course I had to take the opportunity to do a trek when I was in Ladakh. I can highly recommend it too those of you who enjoy trekking. For more information about this trip, visit Inspection Visits  in this blog

Charity trekking

Ladakh
Ladakh

Indeed, trekking in the Himalayas seems to be a tourist activity that’s in tune with the spirit of HELP. Many of our volunteers take the opportunity to go on a trek while they are in the Himalayas, but not everyone who wants to trek wants to volunteer. I have therefore teamed up with The Mountain Company to run a trek in Sikkim next October. Hopefully, we will find enough people to join up and make a contribution of £300 to HELP‘s donations fund. Needless to say, I shall be joining the group.

The Goecha La trek is a beautiful trek that starts in sub-tropical forests, passes through pasturelands of grazing yaks and reaches the Goecha La pass, at just under 5,000m, opposite the eastern flank of Mt Kanchenjunga. There are many other impressive mountains seen on this trek including Kabru, Rathong and Pandim. The views are stunning. On the way to the start of the trek, the group will also get the chance to stay a night with a Sikkimese family in Kewzing, and visit the village school which is being supported by HELP.

If you would like more information about this trip, and find out how to book, visit The Mountain Company‘s website.

Harvest time
Harvest time

Volunteers

Volunteer numbers were well down this year, which was disappointing. Only eleven (one of whom is just about to go out to Nepal) were placed in 2007, compared to 20 in 2006. I am not sure what the reasons for this drop are. I thought it may be due to the falling value of the US dollar, but reducing the fees by £50 didn’t seem to make any impact.

Another disappointing phenomenon this year was the high percentage of paid and signed up volunteers who dropped out before arriving at their school. In all, four pulled out. In one case, the volunteer had to return home for family reasons, which is just one of those things that can’t be helped. One of the others was already resident in India, and decided to stay where she was. The remaining two just decided that they preferred to join other non-HELP projects, informing me just a day or two before the schools were expecting them. This was highly embarrassing, since we had to break our promise to the schools concerned. I suspect that people concerned are not thinking about the consequences of their withdrawal on the credibility of our programme. Why this should have been such a problem this year is a mystery.

Ladakhi boys
Ladakhi boys

The shortage of volunteers meant that majority of the schools we are trying to help did not get a volunteer this year. Fortunately, there are signs that the coming year is going to be much better. There are already three signed up, and more in the pipeline, and this is still very early in the recruitment year.

Once again, Simon Forwood deserves a special mention. It seems that Simon has been volunteering for us continuously ever since we opened up shop in 2003, with just a break in 2005 to get trained as a teacher, and another to get married, a happy event that took place in Nepal this May. He and Manila have had to hang on in Nepal and subsequently in India, since then, pending completion of all the Nepalese paperwork, and they are likely to have to stay in India for another six months until Manila can get her Australian residence permit. However, I can’t say I feel too sorry about these bureaucratic delays, because he and Manila devoted two months of their time at the PNG High School in Gangtok, where he installed some computers he’d imported (see ‘projects’ below), and Manila undertook some nursing duties. Perhaps I should write to the Australian authorities to hold them up in India even longer!

Talking of marriage, HELP seems to have become as much a marriage bureau as an aid agency. It’s not just Simon who has hooked up while on assignment with HELP, Rachel Marsden also got married since the last Newsletter with a colleague of hers in Ladakh. Yami and I were really pleased to meet her and Dushant in Kerala last January. They are now both back in the UK and living nearby. Who is next?

The volunteers remain central to HELP‘s activities. The schools and their children benefit greatly from the fresh approaches and enthusiasm of the volunteers (and also, as some principals have told me, from the example they set to the local teachers with regard to time-keeping and attendance). In addition, much of the money that HELP has at its disposal comes from the donations made by the volunteers when they sign up. Indeed, they often undertake tasks beyond the call of duty such as taking photos of sponsored children, monitoring HELP funded projects, inspecting schools that have approached us for assistance and so on. All of this makes it possible to run HELP without having to pay people to do these things. Without the volunteers, and their contributions, HELP would be able to achieve very little. So thanks to all of you.

Projects

Inside a traditional Ladakhi house
Inside a traditional Ladakhi house

We now have the following projects to find funds for:

  • St. Paul Primary school building project: I was able to see the new building in February, and I was pleased to see that the school had just moved in, so it’s up and running at last. They still need to add a second floor to accommodate the boarders, after which the project will be complete. This year I have been able to give them a grant of £1,200.
  • The JN Memorial school building project: This little school is housed in a flimsy wooden structure, which is slowly sliding down the mountain. The building project has been initiated by Alison Stephens, a friend of Becky Scott who was volunteering at the school last year. Alison and Becky’s mother, Anne Tallentire, have been raising funds for a new building, and have just passed over £1,700 which I shall be sending to the school shortly. I shall also be digging into HELP funds to help things along. The target is £7,000. In addition, they have established a pen pal scheme between the JN Memorial children and a primary school that Alison’s son goes to.
  • The Social Public School, Pokhara, Nepal: HELP has provided grants over the past two years in response to requests submitted by volunteers. Last year we contributed £500 towards the building of a Science Lab which was the brain-child of Susan Foster. This year we contributed £150 towards the costs of setting up a library, which Brittany Sears has set up.
  • SASA Academy, Uttarkhand, India: This school has requested £4,250 to build two new classrooms. We have made an initial contribution of £500.
    Irena Arambasic and pupils
    Irena Arambasic and pupils
  • Computers for Indian Schools: This is a project established and run by Simon Forwood with assistance from HELP‘s representatives in India. This year he has imported from Australia,and set up, 20 decommissioned computers for 9 schools in Sikkim and West Bengal. For more details see the project website We have given Simon a grant of £500 as a small contribution towards his costs.
  • Teacher Training: Barbara Porter, a free-lance teacher trainer who taught at St. Paul primary school in 2006, has agreed to run two concurrent seminars in Kalimpong and Gangtok at the end of next February, just before the new school year. The aim is to improve standards of English teaching by introducing local English teachers to new methodologies. Many thanks to Himalayan Kingdoms for their £500 contribution to this event. I have used their trekking services twice now, and can recommend them without reservation.
  • In addition to these projects, our volunteers and their families make direct donations to their schools. For example, Ann McGivern, mother of volunteer Mairi McGivern, has raised £251 for the Gyan Jyoti school in Kalimpong, which wants to build two more classrooms. She has also set up a pen pal link between the Gyan Jyoti school and the school she teaches at.

In addition to these sums paid out by HELP, our volunteers have also, as part of their commitment when signing up, made personal contributions (£50 or more), directly to their schools. This money is spent on items agreed jointly by the volunteers and the school principals, and include books, and stationery, games equipment, computers and printers, and also repairs to and decoration of school buildings. Altogether, these small sums amounted to approximately £1000 this year.

Sponsorship

Sponsored children
Sponsored children

We now have twenty sponsors sponsoring 28 children (compared with a total of ten sponsors sponsoring sixteen children last year), so the programme is steadily growing. Many thanks to all our sponsors for the long-term commitment they have made. These payments make a big difference to the families lucky enough to benefit from them.

To save on international transfer charges, I generally make payments once a year in November, in time for the new school year. £3177 of our sponsorship funds have been handed over this year.

Ex-volunteers have set up their own sponsorship schemes to help children in the schools they taught at. Why don’t those of you who are doing this give us an update on how these schemes are going via the HELP Network?

The Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Awards 2007

Thanks to all of you who nominated HELP for this award. Unfortunately, I have just heard that we didn’t win. I’m not sure what it takes to win these awards, but on the basis of the ratio between funds earmarked for running costs and those marked for projects, and of the transparency of our operation, HELP should have won! Naturally!

The Future

The aim has to be to recruit enough volunteers so that all the schools on our database get at least one a year, and also to raise funds for the projects we have committed ourselves to. The charity trek and the teacher training seminars are new ventures, and I will report on these next year.

Merry Christmas to all of you, and a happy new year!

Jim Coleman
Director
Himalayan Education Lifeline Programme

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HELP is rare for an organisation offering volunteer teaching in that it puts the needs of the local people before the desires of the western person wanting ‘the experience’.
Alastair SkeffingtonSaraswatimata Yumahangma English School