William Hinthorn - Spotlight on Service
I work at Little Stars School (or Rishi Pragatisheel Shikshan Sansthan) which is a nonprofit school that offers a high quality education for little to no fee to over 870 students from the low caste and poverty stricken families living in the bastis (slums) of Benares, Uttar Pradesh. The school was founded in 1996 by a woman named Asha Pandey on the roof of her parents’ house as a means of keeping the children of the rickshaw wallas in school and up to speed with national expectations. Though India in theory has free primary education, fees for uniforms and school supplies often keep the poorest children from being able to attend, and patchy teacher attendance and class sizes that can reach over 100 students make learning impossible for these children. Families who struggle to buy food often force their children to beg to bring in a handful of extra rupees per day at the expense of opportunities to improve later in life.
Little Stars strives to maintain low class sizes and retain teachers who are creative and invested in building relationships with students and their families, helping the slower students catch up, and providing the children with solid academic and vocational skills which will help them in the future. Uttar Pradesh has the fourth worst rate of female infanticide in India, and from there, the gender inequalities only worsen in the form of missed educational opportunities, restrictions of personal freedom, and familial abuse. Part of the school’s mission is to strengthen the young girls in the community through political activism, seminars, teachers who will mentor and support the adolescents’ needs, and constantly trying to create a better environment for girls to study and become leaders in their class and households (with such success that our higher grades are a majority female by a large margin). As a part of this mission, Little Stars also runs the Shanti Niketan hostel which is now the home to 30 street girls and orphans ages 4-16 with whom I play sports and tutor on the roof of the old school building.
Since Little Stars runs solely on private donations, it always can use an extra hand whether it be in the classroom where I have spent a lot of time substituting, assisting teachers, and helping slower students struggling to learn new topics so that the class may stay on task in preparing for the state board exams, or in the office, where I now spend most of my time, writing grant proposals and fundraising, communicating with sponsors and volunteers, helping with budgeting, documenting student information, drafting tests, helping teachers improve their curricula, managing short term volunteers, or designing a water purification system to provide potable water for the families of our students. At the end of each day, I spend an hour running “coaching classes” for primary school children in English and math and always finish with songs or by playing organized games on the roof of the school.
Little Stars can be a crazy place sometimes, overflowing with the chanting of students (a “a” aaapple, b “b” beaaar…), workers helping with renovations or the construction of the new school building, parents coming with complaints or questions, and a host of other stimuli that can be a bit disorienting at first, but just a quick peek into a classroom or a game with one of the hostel girls, or a conversation with one of the alumni (such as Deepak, Sanjay, and Suraj who are learning banethi fire dancing with me) is enough to convince anyone of the vital work that Little Stars is doing and the lasting impression that our contributions are making. Whether it be in the school or on trips to the nearby Bal Ashram for different functions, Little Stars is certainly the highlight of my time here in Benares.