Cries of “Don’t go! Don’t go!” filled Katie’s ears. Skinny, ragged children crowded around her, each hoping to give her one last hug. They passed her camera around the classroom, squeezing as many memories into it as they could.
Eight weeks in Delhi at the Jamghat center for street children had flown by in a rush of math lessons and hygiene talks. Katie’s countless hours volunteering with these disadvantaged children had been a labor of love as she helped them develop life skills that would get them off the streets.
Gazing around the classroom, Katie saw Ahmed smiling with the other students, and she thought about all of their lessons together. Though she had come prepared to teach, Katie had not expected to learn so much from Ahmed. She had worked with many kids, but this special boy had helped her realize that, as Katie says, “everyone excels at something, even if you don’t see it right off the bat.”
Rewind seven months to the middle of January. Katie Rogers decided to find a way to make a difference in the world. She had earned her bachelor’s degree in vocal performance at BYU–Idaho and was ready to branch out from her hometown of Tremonton, Utah, to explore the world.
“I had wanted to do something like a volunteer program for a long time,” she says. “I spent two weeks searching online and finally came across Volunteering Solutions.” After considering her financial limitations, this organization connected her with Jamghat, a small preparatory school for homeless children in Delhi, India. Katie’s summer was instantly booked.
Fast forward to May. After four months of studying Hindi, Katie arrived in New Delhi, ready for an adventure. Katie and the other volunteers were led to the center through a bustling pigeon market and down a small alley in the heart of Old Delhi. As she climbed up a narrow staircase and stepped into the second-story room with low ceilings, she was not prepared for the sight that met her eyes.
Katie had imagined “an open courtyard with kids playing around—like you see in films or documentaries. That’s not what I got.” What she got was a dirty twelve- by twenty-foot room crammed with lockers, posters, and boxes of supplies. Everything and everyone was grimy in the humid India heat. Katie quickly forgot the filth, however, as the group of nearly thirty smiling children turned to greet her. Shouts of “Hi, didi!” or “Hi, big sister!” filled the air, and the teaching began.
Katie met Ahmed and Mubarak soon after arriving at Jamghat, which is a Hindi word for “a lively gathering.” These brothers were twelve and fourteen years old respectively and were two of the older students at the center. As she worked with them, a special bond formed. “I spent pretty much the whole time working with those two boys who I believe were too smart not to go to school,” she says. Katie and Ahmed became especially close. Though every student called Katie “didi,” or big sister, Ahmed began grabbing her hand and saying, “My didi” as soon as she entered the classroom.
Ahmed had been dismissed as clumsy and goofy by some of the Indian volunteers, so he had been shifted aside during lessons for students who they thought had more potential. Katie discovered otherwise. “He was a genius. It took him only two days to learn how to divide,” she says. “I’m not that great of a teacher and there was definitely a language barrier, but he still learned how to divide.” Katie knew that Ahmed had been overlooked and needed to be placed in a public school.
In a country where only 66 percent of the population is literate, having an education opens many doors. “Everybody wants an education,” Katie explains. “If you go to a public school, you’re almost guaranteed middle-class or lower-middle-class life.” Although public education is free, the schools require that students come with all of their own supplies and uniforms. Some children’s families, like Ahmed’s, are too poor to fund their schooling—even though the cost equates to only about twenty American dollars per month. For poor children like Ahmed, Jamghat provides some semblance of an education while trying to raise money to sponsor them.
School for Ahmed
After three weeks of working with Ahmed, Katie finally asked him why he wasn’t already in a public school. “It was the first time I had questioned Ahmed about why he wasn’t in school. He got flustered and didn’t give me a straight answer. I asked, ‘Don’t you want to be in school?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’” Ahmed finally explained that he knew his family couldn’t help, and he was too shy to ask Jamghat for help.
“I realized that this kid wanted to go to school and decided that if Jamghat couldn’t send him to school, I could. It’s under 20 dollars a month to sponsor a child at a public school. When I told him that he was going to school and that if Jamghat wouldn’t do it, I would, he got so excited. His face was glowing. After that, he was much more hopeful. And he was trusting in me because I was his didi—I was his sister.”
In the following weeks, Katie helped Ahmed prove to Jamghat that he was smart enough for public school, and she became his sponsor. Before she left, she was fortunate enough to see the fruits of her labors: Ahmed off to his first day of public school, dressed in a new uniform and carrying a backpack of school supplies. “On the first day, Ahmed was at the top of his class,” Katie says. “They were so impressed. Because he was quiet, no one ever paid any attention to him. But he was the smartest kid there [at Jamghat].” With Katie’s help, Ahmed took flight.
Remembering the Lively Gathering
Back in the States, Katie looks back on her days at Jamghat with love and hope. Leaving her new little brothers and sisters was difficult, but she keeps tabs on all of them, especially Ahmed, through Facebook with one of the site coordinators. Even though she is now thousands of miles away, Katie continues her efforts to raise awareness about Jamghat by finding people who will donate time and money to the school. Since Jamghat’s funding comes mainly from selling handmade bags that a tailor makes for the school, there is no guarantee that the school will ever have a consistent budget. Katie’s efforts mean a great deal to the school.
Near tears, Katie says, “I came back so changed. I think a lot about my blessings now. I see how easy life is here, how simple life is.” When given the right opportunities, these seemingly harsh children softened and showed that they could change.
Although she had left home to make her mark on the world by teaching impoverished children, two months in a dilapidated classroom had left a mark on her: the knowledge that everyone can be successful—if only they are given encouragement to spread their wings and try.