Helen and Peter Wilde’s visit – November 2011
As old friends of Chris and Roger we have followed Jason’s story from the very beginning. Inspired by the generosity of Jason and his family, Helen became a trustee of HMA. We are regular donors and in 2007 we held a fundraising event in Bristol.
Our first visit was in November 2011. As keen hill walkers, we decided to combine seeing the school with a week walking the Singalila Ridge in the Himalayan foothills.
After much planning, we landed in Bagdogra, close to the Himalayan foothills. Jason met us there and his welcome was like meeting an old friend. Indian roads are not for the fainthearted, due to potholes and local driving habits, but he drove us expertly up the long winding drive to Darjeeling. We were spellbound by the surroundings and after three hours we arrived in Darjeeling with its tumbling buildings perched on a hilltop, its hooting horns and colourful locals – a marvellous mix of cultures with lots of evidence of the area’s history as a colonial hill station. We also had our first view of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. We were ‘hooked’!
Next morning our adventure started. HMA is 20 kilometres from Darjeeling and the roads are extraordinarily bad, often just a big pile if rocks! Drivers in Land Rovers squeezed past with millimetres to spare and much hooting of horns, but all in good spirits and it was fun! We passed vast tea gardens which dominate the landscape, with beautifully tended shrubs. Many workers were parents of HMA children.
We rounded a corner and saw the playground and school buildings, so familiar to us on photographs but now seen in real life. A pleasant surprise awaited us. The teachers had held back morning assembly until we arrived! As guests of honour we were treated to singing, traditional Nepali dancing, and then sports day! Running races, relays and even a traditional sack race filled the small playground. There was much shouting and cheering by the children and Helen was delighted to present the prizes.
Sports day is designed for children to let off steam before the serious business of annual exams. Aravindo, the Headmaster, and his teaching staff, conducted these with great seriousness. All but the youngest classes took the exams, part of the national syllabus.
As classes settled down to work, Jason showed us round. Most striking was the obvious earthquake damage that had occurred a few weeks earlier. Fortunately nobody had been hurt as the earthquake occurred after hours. We were delighted to see rebuilding and repair well under way (funded by the HMA charity). We were also pleased to see that the newest and largest classroom block had only suffered minor damage. Its robust concrete two-storey construction was much stronger than the original single storey block which was badly damaged, several walls needing rebuilding. Every cloud has a ‘silver lining’, however, and the rebuilding will be much stronger with important improvements including soundproofing between classrooms.
It was particularly poignant to see that the most severely damaged building was Jason’s parents’ home, situated on the school premises. A major wall had collapsed (thankfully without injuries) but, true to form, Jason and his family are repairing the school before turning their attention to their own needs.
We spent two days at the school and returned again after our trek. As we got to know the children, we were continually charmed. They are so enthusiastic for their schooling but also full of fun. The coeducational nature of the school is great and the children are good at mixing across age groups, older ones caring for younger ones.
Their English is excellent and we soon found ourselves testing spelling and grammar. Helen brought juggling balls and at breaktime started to teach older children. This was great fun and was met with screams of delight round the playground. We had spare balls but lots of children started practising just with stones!
Academic standards are high – many English seven year olds would not be able to substitute pronouns as well as HMA children! Aravindo and his trained, qualified teaching staff are clearly dedicated to their task and proud to deliver high quality education in such a deprived area.
Jason’s mum gave us lunch. She has basic facilities round her wood-burning oven on the floor but everything was spotless and the food was delicious. The children get a daily hot meal funded by the local authorities, who recognise the area is below the poverty line. Lunches are simple but nourishing.
Jason’s wife Isabella teaches at the school and is a tower of strength, working with Jason to run the school. This requires them to be ‘Jack of all trades’, giving pastoral care to the pupils, dealing with basic needs to keep the school going, managing the budget and even keeping animals and vegetables on the school premises! Jason does not teach, dividing his time between acting as school manager and taxi driving in Darjeeling.
We were lucky enough to stay overnight in the nearby tea estate manager’s bungalow. Although tea workers’ wages are low, the manager is very supportive of HMA and makes his bungalow available to supporters and visitors. This allowed us to walk round nearby villages with Jason and say hello to some of the families. None could speak English but all were charming and friendly, showing great dignity, despite their low standard of material wealth.
When we left, it felt like saying goodbye to family friends. We hadn’t known what to expect but left having been profoundly moved by the experience, by the dedication of Jason, Isabella and their families, by the staff of the school but most of all by the kids. They were just great and will have advantages never possible without this amazing school.
We will certainly visit again!