Ajit George, Shanti Bhavan’s director of operations, with children at the educational nonprofit. Photo courtesy of Shanti Bhavan

Bellevue resident talks life-changing outcome of India’s Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project

Vinceya used to live in a thatched house with dry coconut leaves and logs that acted as a roof.

When it rained, water would seep through. Her mother tried to plug the holes with old clothes and umbrellas, but it wasn’t much to protect the single room she and her family shared. With a cot as their only piece of furniture, and a stove made of stones, she and her family did the best they could with the little money her alcoholic father would bring home.

Now, after having completed her schooling at Shanti Bhavan, a south India-based nonprofit that educates children from the “lowest social and economic class,” and graduating from college, the 22-year-old is the sole breadwinner for her family through her job at Amazon.

After about 20 years in operation, Vinceya is just one of hundreds of students whose life has been changed through enrollment at Shanti Bhavan.

To help continue their mission of equipping graduates with high-paying jobs upon completion of their multi-year program, Mercer Island-based Yogabliss will host a fundraiser for Shanti Bhavan on Oct. 28.

Belleve resident Ajit George, Shanti Bhavan’s director of operations, will share a story about the school his family built at the fundraiser.

“I believe the secret sauce in what we’re doing is it’s such a safe and nourishing environment,” George said. “It starts so young and kids are able to overcome damage and trauma by their past.”

Sixty percent of the children come from rural villages and 40 percent from urban slums, and 95 percent are known as “Dalits,” a word in Hindi meaning “broken/scattered.” Dalits are considered to be members of the “lowest” castes of India and were considered to “pollute” a caste member if one touched a Dalit.

Many of the children have also faced much worse conditions, such as sexual violence, alcoholism, domestic violence or other psychological and physical hardship. Their families have been forced to live on $2 a day.

And, yet, the school’s graduates have a 100 percent university acceptance rate and the majority work at Fortune 500 companies once they graduate.

George said the organization started after his father, an Indian immigrant, came to the United States in the 1960s. He became a successful businessman, but always thought about what he wanted to do to give back as he made his money. George’s father would later sell his company and focus on social and civic engagement. He turned his attention back to where he came from – India.

As a young military officer, he often saw poverty and it bothered him, George said. Among his charitable works, was Shanti Bhavan.

Ten years into the nonprofit, George joined his father.

Shanti Bhavan was almost entirely funded by the family until 2008 when the Great Recession hit and they “lost everything.” George’s main priority was to figure out solutions to their financial problems and find a new funding model.

Since then, Shanti Bhavan has been featured in Netflix docu-series, “Daughters of Destiny,” which was released this past July, and took seven years to film.

The series follows five young women who are either graduates of Shanti Bhavan or current students.

George said their program is revolutionary, which is one of the reasons Netflix decided to do the four-part series. Their 30-acre campus has a soccer and cricket field and houses approximately 300 students, including 50 attending college and another 50 of working alumni.

Their next goal is to raise enough money to start a second school with the same reach.

“We can grow and reach more kids, it becomes more than education,” George said. “It becomes a powerful movement.”

George said they never want to skimp on Shanti Bhavan’s mission of instilling social and civic responsibility to its students, as well as reaching for excellence.

“My experience is a lot of programs for the poor have really limited expectations for the poor – that they don’t need as many resources – and I think that’s deeply unfair and really limiting,” he said. “If you do give these resources to a child in poverty, they do as well as upper and middle class students.”

Vinceya can attest to that.

“I learned that, given an opportunity, any child can succeed as well as the privileged and fortunate,” she said. “Neither my parents nor I would have ever imagined that an auto-driver’s daughter belonging to the ‘under the poverty line’ income bracket could do well in studies, write poetry, speak fluent English and succeed in the second best business school in south India … Now, I work at Amazon and am the sole breadwinner of my family. I am able to send my brother to school and can afford my dad’s spinal cord operation.”

In June 2013, she obtained her undergraduate degree in business management from St. Joseph’s College of Commerce, a Bangalore University-affiliated college.

Although Vinceya still lives with her family in Lingarajapuram, Bangalore, she aspires to to earn her Master of Business Administration at an Ivy League university, such as Harvard, Yale or Stanford, among others.

“I went to Dubai this summer to attend Harvard Crossroads Summer School for five days,” she said. “We were taught by Harvard professors, learned to analyze case studies and met with many successful entrepreneurs.”

In the future, she hopes to be able to financially support Shanti Bhavan and build a home for people on the street to help them find their talents or instill in them practices that they can use to support themselves.

But, most of all, her dream is to improve access to clean and affordable drinking water, as well as electricity for those in the slums and villages.

“I will start with where I live,” she said, “because I know how it is to live without these basic necessities and I still face these issues at home.”

To donate to Shanti Bhavan, attend the Yogabliss fundraiser, which will be a 75-minute yoga workshop, led by Rebecca Pitzer, from 1:30-3:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 28 at Yogabliss, 7803 SE 27th St., Mercer Island.

Donations made at Yogabliss will sponsor a student’s annual tuition of $1,600, and will also pay for housing, clothing and medical expenses.

To learn more about Shanti Bhavan, visit www.shantibhavanchildren.org. To learn more about the yoga workshop, visit yogabliss.org/workshopsevents.

Prior to living at Shanti Bhavan, about 60 percent of children live in rural villages and 40 percent live in urban slums. Photo courtesy of Shanti Bhavan

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