Napanista in Bangladesh
Last week I stood on a stage and gave a welcome speech to hundreds of eager faces, representing the inaugural class of students and parents, of the newly formed Chittagong Grammar School in the village of Bhatiary, Bangladesh. These children, from 6-14 years old are the poorest of the poor, and many have never gone to school before, or went for a few years and then had to withdraw to work to support their families. This free school offers a chance to break the cycle of poverty, and give them a basic education that they desperately need but cannot afford. In the mid-1990s my parents moved to Bangladesh from Miami -quite a contrast. My dad was hired to be the director of a massive garment factory in Chittagong that under his watch grew to be the second largest employer in Bangladesh, just second to the state government. I was a newlywed in Frankfurt, Germany "playing house" at the time, and I was a little shocked to hear the news of their relocation. I figured it would be an exciting three year adventure. They immediately fell in love with the warm Bangladeshi people and three years became five, then ten and finally 16 years!
They loved the warmth of the Bangladeshi people and were addicted to the adventure of living in a frenetic third world city, vibrating with activity 24/7. They picked up golf and became avid golfers at the Chittagong Golf Club in Bhatiary, waking at 5:30am to drive 45 minutes through dense rickshaw traffic to get 18 holes in before the heat of the day and before dad headed to work. It was on the golf course that they met Abul, a 19-year-old illiterate caddy whose destiny was about to change. My parents played golf with Abul every day for years, and he became like a son to them, and a brother to me. My parents recognized a smart young man, kind and clever, with a killer golf game. They became regular visitors of Bhatiary, his village, and became close to his family, eventually even helping to choose his bride! At the time they met, he lived with his mother and siblings in a tiny thatched roof hut, in the poorest of conditions. Abul and his brother did not go to school and were the main breadwinners for their family, as their father had passed away when they were young. My mom taught Abul to read and write and though he spoke some English, paid for additional lessons for him.
My parents were struck by the number of children who were playing in the streets and in the gutters. They swarmed them as thought they were celebrities on their visits to Bhatiary. My mom decided she wanted to do something for them, the kids. The idea of a playground-something that is scarce, and usually reserved for the children of the upper class behind high walls- began to form. Abul helped her find land to lease and source the equipment - some custom built, but most shipped from Thailand. The initial "Play Park" was hugely popular with the children, visited by hundreds of children every day. Several years in, the landowner decided to take back that piece of land to build on it, and they lost the space. It was at this time that my mom decided to buy land, in order to have a more permanent place for the Play Park. I was living in Tokyo, Japan at the time and helped by hitting up my expat friends (this was before GoFundMe). In no time, I had raised more than enough for the land and new equipment. Other local friends in Chittagong supported her as well, and before long the Play Park became a multi-story community center. A local architect donated the design, an accomplished lawyer (and mom's golf buddy) helped with the paperwork and various friends, all from the Chittagonian upper class, helped as well, donating money, concrete, or other equipment.
In May of 2000, I attended the official Opening Ceremony of the Play Park, that was a celebration attended by hundreds, celebrating this amazing gift to the entire village. Since then the Play Park has seen thousands of children on the slides and swings and has enriched the lives of the village children with after-school programs, like art, dance, music, a library, and computer programs. One of the most successful activities is Tae Kwan Do, that has launched some of the kids onto the competitive stage, including tournaments in Dhaka and Korea. During the daytime, an NGO school held classes in the classrooms.
My parents had to leave Bangladesh around 2010 for health reasons that eventually led to their passing a few years later. Since then, The Play Park has continued to thrive under Abul's care and my family supports it financially. He is now the Director of the school and he has done an amazing job, and it would not have survived or thrived without him. This uneducated but extremely clever ballboy is now one of the most respected of his village, and an example to these kids of their own possibility. Whether I wanted it or not, the stewardship of the school has fallen to me. I have tried my best to stay on top of it, visiting annually to watch performances by the dance troupe, the music class, and Tae Kwan Do. I love these visits and find Bangladesh to be fascinating, certainly never boring. It is a 20-hour expensive journey from Napa, and it is like traveling to another world. I encourage friends (and random strangers!) to join me on these trips, to get an insider's view, and everyone who visits says it is truly a life-changing experience.
A few years ago, the NGO school moved out, and it made me sad to know that the beautiful building was underutilized but I didn't know what to do about it, or how to find another school. I also knew that the current model was not sustainable. Things were fine now, but the future of The Play Park would never be assured unless I could find a local organization or NGO to partner with.
Last month, out of the blue, I got a call from a good friend of my mom's from Chittagong. Shereen Ispahani used to play golf with my mom, and is herself an accomplished businesswoman. She also happens to have founded the largest private English medium school in Bangladesh, The Chittagong Grammar School (CGS), with over one thousand students. Over the years she has supported the Play Park in many ways, exchanging books, sending volunteers and simply being a staunch advocate. This phone call though, out of the blue, was the miracle that I was not expecting. She explained how she had been golfing, and she asked her young caddy, around age 12, where he went to school. He told his story; his dad had passed away a few years ago, and he had to leave school to get an income to support his siblings. Right there, on the golf course, Shereen had an epiphany. She called me a few hours later and said, "What do you think of a CGS school at the Play Park? A free school, for the poorest of the poor. Free uniforms, free books, even lunch provided?" What did I think? I was ecstatic but cautious. Would this really work? Was she serious? But Shereen was on fire. She told me she wanted to have the launch take place on January 27th! "I'm in, let's do this" and I booked my flight to come to the Opening Ceremony.
The new school is now officially launched. Currently, we have 80 kids with hundreds of applications still coming in. In Bangladesh, the most densely populated country in the world, space is at a premium. The kids will come in shifts: 8am-12pm and 12pm-4pm. This gives the kids who work as ball boys at the golf course, or work elsewhere, the opportunity to continue earning for their families. With so much need, there is a chance we eventually need to add a third shift from 4-8pm, increasing the student body to 120. Each kid gets two brand new uniforms, a pair of new shoes, a book bag and books, and a bag of hygiene items. The first things the kids will learn are basic lifestyle rules. While I was there, the kids were given their daily snack, a banana and a small package of cookies. When they were done, I saw not one or two, but almost EVERY child drop their litter, wherever they were standing! Things that seem common sense to us, keeping litter in bins, and commonplace hygiene, are not the norm for these kids. So on top of learning how to read and write, life skills will be key.
Back in Napa, Bangladesh feels worlds away. Its hard to remain focussed, as my own daily life here pulls me in different directions. However, almost every day, when I want to complain about something trivial, (They are out of almond milk for my cappuccino!? I had to go to three stores to find organic delicata squash?!), I take a deep breath, realize how ridiculously trivial my problems are and think of the daily struggles these kids and their families face. I am grateful to my parents for being the courageous visionaries they were, and though it sometimes feels like an obligation they saddled me with, when I am surrounded by the bright smiles of those kids and the proud faces of their parents, I feel blessed.
We can always use support! Our current needs are large and never done- concretely, we need additional air conditioning units, a new and larger water tank, and we have some structural improvements we would like to make. There are always sponsorship opportunities to support the education and afterschool classes. Please consider a donation if you are so inclined, and of course I am always happy to bring visitors on the insider's tour! Just let me know! Go Fund Me for the Play Park