Last Updated on June 3, 2023 by Ellen
“Can you guess where I’m from? Can you guess my country?” I spoke slowly as I looked at curious young faces. We were on a morning visit to Shanti India School in Bodhgaya. It was only 10:00 a.m. and already 100 degrees. I told the kids India was hotter than my home. They proudly showed their reusable water bottles – hydration is important when the temperature soars to 107, the high temperature forecast for that day.
Shanti India School in Bodhgaya
Shanti India is a special school for bright children — who just happen to be extremely poor. Spouse Theo, his mother Diane and I visited several classes to say hello to students. The older students eventually guessed our home country.
The fun school visit was tied to our latest adventure in our budget slow travel world tour in early retirement.
We’ve stayed in some really memorable places: a “floating house” in Vietnam; with a Mayan family in Guatemala; on an island without internet in the Philippines, for examples. This latest stay is even better — our rental money helped some of the poorest Indian children you can imagine from lower castes.
Spouse Theo found a guesthouse affiliated with Shanti India. The money from our stay would help support the school, which offers free education for some lucky local children in one of the most poverty-stricken areas we have seen in India so far.
I discovered these kids thrive, against all odds.
Extreme poverty in Bodhgaya area
Bodhgaya (or Bodh Gaya) is the place where the first Buddha meditated for several years to eventually become enlightened. It is a pilgrimage spot for Buddhists from all over the world. Bodhgaya is part of the Gaya District in Bihar Province. One World Bank paper estimates Bihar has the highest provincial poverty rate in India. Bihar is mostly rural. More than half of its population is under 25 years old.
There are several schools in the region that claim ‘free education’ for kids who otherwise wouldn’t have a shot at education. These schools compete for NGO funding and ‘representatives’ make hard pitches to goodhearted Bodhgaya tourists for donations. Unfortunately, some of these schools don’t have great reputations on providing quality education. One sales pitch I witnessed had a man flipping through a photo album with faded pictures of kids at a school that could have been anywhere in India – there was no way to know if he was legit.
Another issue is the extreme poverty of many kids in Bodhgaya. Uniforms, books, supplies cost money that many poor families don’t have. Some schools don’t even cover those costs, despite taking in donations.
Also, some parents actually rely on their children for chores while they work – if there is any work. And Bodhgaya has a large number of street kids. Sometimes the kids are sent out by the parents to beg at the entrances to various temples in town.
There are also many hard-working parents who scrape by with shockingly little money, but who are determined to give their kids a better life. And so families make sacrifices to send their children to Shanti because of its reputation.
Shanti India School has great reputation
The lucky kids get to go to Shanti India. It has a great reputation for quality education. I saw a few beaming parents coming onto the grounds at lunch time. They were clearly happy to have their children at this school.
Shanti (shanti means ‘peace’) India School is so well known, recommended, and sought after that there are now 720 students! That’s a lot of growth from humble beginnings in 2005 – especially when you realize how difficult it is for families to get their children to the school in the first place. The payoff has been huge.
Our students average better results in board level exams comparing to children from other schools in the area. We also have many success stories of students getting their dream jobs or being admitted to good colleges after finishing our school. That’s why many more children are willing to attend SHANTI INDIA school than we are able to accept. Their hard working parents realize that the education provided by us can change their daughter’s and son’s lives.– Shanti India School
Impressive results against all odds
We briefly talked with students in four classes to practice their English. Let me tell you what: we have traveled around India for several months and the children at Shanti India spoke the best English we’ve heard anywhere in the country outside the typical ‘tourist zones’.
These are smart kids. They are not throwaways just because they aren’t born into privilege.
What’s not to love!? We also met the founder- a kind French woman named Dominique Valli. Her work is from the heart and soul, and it’s clear she cares deeply about the children, their families, the Bodhgaya community — and all beings.
We’ve seen the school. We’ve talked with students and teachers. We met the founder and other administrators.
This place is the real deal.
Sponsor a child
Sponsor a child for about $25 a month. Or make a one-time donation. Better yet — gift your donation to someone instead of a useless gift card so someone can buy more junk they don’t really need.
You can also stay in the Shanti Guest House if you visit Bodhgaya. It’s less than a mile from the school in a quiet neighborhood but close enough to all the temples and historic sites.
Another option to help Shanti India: Zoom with advanced-level students to help them practice conversational English. That’s so cool!
I can’t think of a better way to feel like a little money is making a real difference in the world. I hope you’ll consider helping out Shanti India’s mission to empower unprivileged children.
Our ultimate message to the intelligent students we met at Shanti India School: study hard. Indians are leaders in our home country: the CEO of Google, and our vice president, to name but a few.
Study hard young friends, because anything can be possible.