Recently I was introduced to an inspiring lady who is making a difference to kids living in poverty in India. Living in Asia it is easy to help those in need in simple ways like donating clothes and household goods, buying raffle tickets, attending charity events and making annual cash donations, but are these small dispersed efforts leaving us with the feeling we are really making a difference?
Meeting Julie Das and learning about her involvement with Balo a children’s education charity, has made me wonder if we all picked one charity or cause and channeled our energy into supporting it rather than a mishmash of various causes would our combined efforts be more effective in making real change?
Interview with Julie Das about Balo a children’s education charity, how and why she chose this particular charity to support .
Q: Where are you from and how long have you lived in Kuala Lumpur?
A: I came to Malaysia in may 2001 my daughter was 3 months old at the time.
In 2009 my family and I went to kolkata in India to live for 2 years due to my husbands posting. We came back to KL in may 2011.
Q: How did you become involved in Balo?
A: In Kolkata I first worked for Mother Theresa for 3 months, caring for handicapped kids and teaching some orphans. I was not too happy about the large structure of the home as I could not see the direct impact of my work. I was one among many foreigners coming from all over the world to help. Plus I found that there was no time for special attention to the kids. It felt like a large institution with rules to follow and no space for creative thinking. I looked for a smaller NGO and an American friend of mine pass me the contact of Elisabetta the founder of Balo, an Italian lawyer. I met her symbolically at the guesthouse, where the “City of Joy” movie was shot which is in the same slum where Casabalò (the home of Balo) is located, we discussed for hours and I found her so full of passion and love for her project that I decided to get involved.
Q: Can you describe Balo and it’s aim?
A: Balo is a children’s educational charity based in Kolkata. Run by the local community, for the local community, it provides free education, medical care and nutritious food to the 90 children under its care. Balo was established with the objective that these children move beyond their desperate slum conditions to a more secure future. The key to this transformation is education. ‘Bhalo’ meaning ‘everything is good’, a phrase Elisabeta heard many times during the months she worked at Mother Theresa’s.
Essentially Balo is an ‘after school tuition center’ to help the children with their homework, ensuring continuity with morning school. Returning home after school for many children is not a happy experience. Some parents are beggars or rickshaw pullers who barely have enough money to eat twice a day.
Thanks to Balo, the children become literate, numerate and most importantly have the potential to work, ultimately benefiting the whole family. Without Balo prospects for the children are grim, involving prostitution, begging or working in the terracotta cup factory for very low pay with a high risk of long term health problems.
Q: You mentioned the Founder of Balo Elisabeta Ravailoi what inspired her to start Balo?
A: At a junction point in her life, and inspired by Mother Theresa, Elisabeta Ravaioli a successful Italian lawyer, came to Kolkata on a quest to give back to society.
Elisabeta was sent to one of the most remote centres in a slum area named Pilkhana, where few volunteers went. For three months she helped with orphans and street children until one day she was told that the centre had to shut down. She was very upset as she had started to build a close relationship with some of the children and could see major improvements in their attitude and learning skills. Driven by her commitment to the slum children, her love of Kolkata, and supported by friends in Italy, Elizabeta founded Balo in 2006.
Q: How has BALO grown since 2006?
A: BALO began in a rented room as a safe place for three children after school with a ‘mother’ to look after them. The ‘mother’ a mature Bengali woman was a respected teacher who had been street feeding the slum children for many years. In 2008, Elisabeta bought a one room apartment which was converted into a family friendly tuition centre for 40 children. Very soon the space became cramped. A few years later, Balo acquired a three-bedroom apartment in the same building and so the 90 children, aged 3 – 15, found support in the newly named home “Casabalò”
Q: Who runs BALO on a day to day basis?
A: Elisabeta is a thoughtful person who takes things slowly and steadily which fits well with the Bengali way of life. She has found the right dedicated people to run Casabalò when she is away in Italy. There are three paid teachers who work daily at Casabalò. The main coordinator, Rehana, comes from Pilkhana slum, and works as a school principal at another school. She is a dedicated lady with a big heart and a beautiful smile. Knowing each and every family in the slum, she selects the children for the Balo scheme.
Q: How does the program assist Children, their families and the community?
A: Balo ensures an English school education for children up to Year 10. Support is available through to Year 12 for those who show outstanding results and commitment, Examples are:
- A 16 year old girl studying economics; Balo paid her annual school fees and books in exchange for her tutoring the children.
- Balò pays for books and part monthly fees for another girl, studying to become a teacher. She is attending the second year of college.
- A third girl started with Balo when she was already in class 11. She now works as an accountant at the State Bank of India.
Most of the children in the program have only one parent whose monthly wage is less than RM200 which does will not feed a family nor pay for school and shelter. So Balò also helps the family members by providing them with extra jobs, food and medical care for emergency situations.
Elisabeta also wanted to empower the women. A work group composed of young Indian women, fairly paid, are engaged in the manufacture of handicraft and accessories which are sold in Italy at a biannual charity event. The proceeds of which are ploughed directly into Balò’ s accounts.
Italian and Indian volunteers have run courses to teach the group the basic skills of cutting, sewing and embroidery. Elisabeta’s mother also advises on designs and patterns which will sell on the Italian market.
As the young women become financially independent, they grow in confidence, self esteem and acquire a sense of identity. A bonus of this initiative is the bonding function that the group exercises, creating a virtuous circle that enhances the material and spiritual condition of the entire community.
Q: What made you choose to support Balo over other charities?
A: I liked the fact that it was the quality over the quantity. Elisabeta wanted the best for a limited number of kids, providing them with an education and a future, create a family feeling for those children rather than just a tuition center. Kids come to get support in their studies but are also nurtured, listened to, cared for. Its very intimate and family friendly.
Also the NGO is run by volunteers mainly so the admin cost are very minimal which means that the given money from sponsors goes almost in totality to the kids as compare to a large NGO where the admin cost are sometimes up to 80 percent!
I also liked the fact that the volunteers and teachers are from the local community and have gone through hardship themselves. They know every family in the slum and can identify those who are in most need.
Q: If you choose to be a sponsor do you support only one of the Balo children?
A: Regarding sponsorship Balos policy is different from other large institutions. The money gathered goes into the money pot and not to a specific child. It goes to those who need it the most and we do not encourage private contacts with sponsors as the kids are not orphan, they have usually one parent . We also do not want to create jealousy among kids. Balo is very open, transparent and we encourage sponsors to come and visit, spend time with all the kids.. Its not an individualist thinking but a family/team work where the most needy are helped. The choosing a child to sponsor can be very negative as some kids may never get chosen for several obvious reasons due to handicap or age or gender.
Q: Aside from Sponsorship what other ways can one support Balo?
A: There are many other ways to support Balo.
- Create a small scale charity event from school or corporate or privately and send a percentage to balo
- finding retailers to buy balos fashion designed beachware products
- going to kolkata to give time in teaching or celebrating life with the kids.
- incorporating balo in the school programs for unilateral exchange program.
- Sending a group of kids to teach, interact and learn in kolkata for 5 days, discover kolkatas culture at the same time and sharing a great experience with balo kids
Or becoming an ambassador in your country and trying to find individual sponsors like close family, friends to give for occasions, birthdays. Christmas
Or helping with e marketing, social network.. We need young people to contribute as well as experienced mothers
Q: How do you maintain your involvement now that you are based in KL?
A: I try to go four times a year each time taking either an international school, a group of sponsors or just my family..
Its only 3 and a half hours away with Air Asia direct flight!
To learn more about Balo or to offer support contact Julie Das at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Balo website at www.balo.it