The India School Project – An interview with founder Sandra Gojković

 

The India School Project is a non-denominational and politically neutral charitable association headquartered in Switzerland. As it is self-funded and reliant on donations, the association members work on a voluntary basis.

https://www.theindiaschoolproject.org/

 

Sustainable and effective aid

”We believe that the place of birth of a child must not dictate his or her future and therefore we collectively invest in the future of disadvantaged village children in underdeveloped areas. Lasting, sustainable and effective.” – Sandra Gojkovic

Goals

The awareness that education is the foundation for the path out of poverty determines The India School Project`s objective:

To provide rural families affected by poverty with the opportunity of a solid school education and to simultaneously raise awareness of the importance of education.

The project’s main mission is to improve the living conditions of the beneficiaries and support them in their journey towards independence.

 

ABOUT SANDRA GOJKOVIĆ

”My dream of being able to achieve a positive change in the world was realised step by step. In 2012, the money I saved up and the support of local partner organizations enabled the birth of The India School Project.

I currently dedicate every spare minute I have left after my studies and a part-time job to develop the project so that as many children as possible can be supported. I am very happy to be able to rely on the support of my family, friends and donors and thank them from the bottom of my heart”

 

 

Growing up in Switzerland, Sandra knew from a young age that she wanted to take her dedication to education and empowerment for the unprivileged to the places that needed it the most. She received her professional qualifications in Pharmaceutical Sciences and achieved a Commercial Baccalaureate followed by language stays in the western part of Switzerland, Italy and the UK. Her early career was in Regulatory Affairs for a Swiss Pharmaceutical company in Zurich. She moved on to the Pragma Group in Dubai where she worked in their Business Development and Marketing Department. It was from Dubai that Sandra took the leap to begin travels through India and Africa. Everywhere she travelled she engaged in volunteer work with local cultural groups. In 2012, she launched The India School Project, with her own financial resources. In 2013 while still working on a Psychology degree, Sandra completed a 3-month internship in Social Business and Microfinance with Nobel Peace Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

She then went back to India and launched a social enterprise to create jobs for villagers, aswell as an education support programme for children at public schools. Most recently she has been working in Switzerland and travels biannually to contribute to her initiatives in India.

 

AN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH SANDRA GOJKOVIC

 

TPM: Describe yourself in five words.

Humble, Compassionate, Hardworking, Easy-going, Positive.

 

 

TPM: When and how did you decide to start The India School Project?

 

I was confronted with poverty during travels with my family from a very young age and the images of impoverished children have been burned into my memory ever since.

In my early twenties I was given the opportunity to live a very privileged life. I travelled the world, stayed in the most exclusive hotels and knew the menus of the fanciest restaurants by heart. I was living in a world where success was judged by the number of materialistic possessions one had and where these possessions were vital to one`s happiness. I started to experience a mental discomfort as the life I was living conflicted with my values and beliefs. The more I had, the more my heart started to hurt knowing that some people do not even have access to basic human rights and most of the times are not even aware of it. This was a turning point in my life. I decided to listen to my intuition and follow my heart. 

I resigned my job and embarked on a journey throughout India, which allowed me to redefine my priorities. I encountered truly unbelievable poverty that can barely be put into words. I crossed many areas of India by myself, visited several NGOs and helped locally in order to understand the source of this poverty and the potential for providing sustainable aid.

I quickly learned that the vicious circle has its roots in the rural areas, far away from the well-known slums of the big cities. The poor living conditions cause people to hope for a better life in the cities and they move away from the countryside. Yet hardly anyone succeeds. In the metropolises, which are already bursting at the seams, most of the emigrants end up in miserable slums and are forced to continue their lives begging. My support, therefore, had to be based in the rural areas, so that help can be offered where it is needed the most, while simultaneously easing the burden on the overcrowded urban slums.

One year later The India School Project was born.

 

TPM: Tell us more about how The India School Project is carrying out its mission?

The problem:

While education in India is free, the mindset there is such that more working hands equals more money to put food on the table. In rural areas, where poverty determines daily life, children usually must support their families since otherwise the income is not sufficient to survive. Instead of encouraging their children to go to school, parents send them to work and make them earn a living at a young age.

If the parents have debts, these are often passed on to the children. As a result they are deprived of their education and hope and are not able contribute to break the cycle of poverty.

Some parents even sell their children off for marriage not knowing that they end up as slaves for either housework or prostitution.

A further weighty factor in diminishing the children’s opportunity of having a humane future is the poor quality of the schools. They are overcrowded and both teaching staff and teaching materials are lacking. Teachers often fail to turn up for their lessons and therefore many parents cannot see the point in sending their children to school. There is a complete lack of proper infrastructure in village schools. There are no proper classrooms, teaching equipment, or even clean toilets. In addition the location of the so called schools are not within the reach of many families.

 

The solution:

It is a great challenge to break the vicious circle of poverty. Experience has shown that lasting and sustainable aid creates opportunities for the people affected to successfully achieve that.

A solid and comprehensive school education is the foundation for an autonomous life – and that is exactly where The India School Project comes in!

 

OUR PROJECTS:

 

PRIMARY SCHOOL

At present 170 children, divided into 6 classes, are being educated at our primary school. The curriculum is based on a holistic approach, which stimulates the cognitive, social and emotional growth of the students. Apart from the main subjects of Math, English and Bengali, extra-curricular subjects, such as dance, singing, sports and yoga are taught. Furthermore all students are served a daily warm meal. This has a positive effect on their performance and serves as motivation for regular class attendance. Last year our school obtained recognition and was listed in the official school directory by the state government.

 

EDUCATION SUPPORT PROGRAMME

Given the fact that the drop-out rate at public schools in India is amongst the highest in the world, we have decided to partner with two of the public schools in the project area, which are in a very bad state. This is how our second project came into being. We provide daily tuition and breakfast to an additional 150 primary and secondary school students for which we have received special status by the local government as all final year students passed the state exams.

 

WOMEN EMPOWERMENT

As we believe in a holistic approach, we started a tailoring training for 25 women. Goal is to turn them into business owners, so they can independently earn an income. They have just finished half of their training. They are the nurturers of the family and spend their profits on the whole family. Their income therefore leads to more literate children and less child labour as their are not dependent on additional income.

 

 

TPM: What is the main long-term goal of the project?

Confident, educated, healthy and well nourished children will be able to pursue higher education and job opportunities in the fields of their choice.

They will be pillars of support for their entire family and will be able to break the cycle of poverty, which ensures a better life for the next generation.

 

TPM: Specifically, how would you like to see more people involved in this project? How they can join the project?

At the India School Project everyone is welcome to help. We all work on a voluntary basis and are always looking for committed volunteers in the field of fundraising, marketing & communication, social media and finance.

Donations are also very welcome and appreciated. We will happily provide you with our account details if you send us an email to: info@theindiaschoolproject.org.

 

TPM: What is the most difficult part of this project?

It can be very difficult to balance the needs of the project with the expectations of the donors. India is a cultural hotbed and business is more about building relations than presenting figures and sums. Many things are based on trust. Business plans don’t always work. We work with rural/tribal people, who have never been exposed to anything like we do. I am very grassroots and never pretend that I have answers. I usually start with dialogues and try to find out what they want and need. But they sometimes don’t know themselves as they were never given the opportunity to even think of what their ideal life would look like. So we mostly have to take the plunge and work on a project step by step. Everything is based on trial and error. Also in rural areas employees fall sick more often, there are floodings, storms and vessels who do not run regularly. All of this can lead to projects taking way longer than expected.

I also get to hear terrible stories of cases of rape and child trafficking in the project area. But over the years I have become less emotional. I used to overthink and overdiscuss the problems. Nowadays I search for solutions instead.

 

TPM: And the most beautiful part?

It warms my heart to see our students grow (mentally and physically) and even more when I see the parents bring and pick them up from school. When we started the project it was very tough to make parents understand that it is important that their children attend school. They did not trust us. What they had initially thought would not be necessary for their children has now become a very important part of their life. They attend parents meetings very religiously and are very interested in how their children perform. It makes me so happy to see a mother being proud of her child. It indirectly also empowers her and thats everything to me.

 

TPM: How do you relate to your parents and friends and manage to have a little bit of fun in the middle of all the things you’re doing?

I’m running the organisation in my leisure time and work part-time for another company as I’m not paying myself a salary. During holidays I travel to India. So there is very little time left for my friends and family. However, I have learnt to keep my friend circle small as it is not the quantity, but the quality that matters. I also have a team of 21 employees in India (who get paid) and a board of 7 people in Switzerland (volunteers). Without them this work would not be possible.

 

TPM: What would you tell a child of eight or nine to inspire her/him to keep rising like you?

It`s not my goal to inspire anyone to become like me. There are so many incredible beings out there to become like. We are all unique in our own ways. The only thing I want for all children on this planet is that they have access to basic human rights such as education. I want them to have a voice and the opportunity and freedom to decide themselves who they want to become.

 

TPM: What within you gives you the power to move forward and continue with the work you are doing?

My soul. I have a very deep and strong connection with my soul and I turn inwards to the  most inner depths of it as much as I can through meditation.

I believe that if we all understand who we really are and that we are all part of a shared network of consciousness not separate from each other, we are able to identify with and sense the suffering of the unprivileged and therefore respond with altruistic acts. We humans tend to forget that our individual self, which is turned towards materialism, is an illusion, a matrix of false beliefs made up by the ego. The nature of our true self is to serve without the desire for personal gain and by helping others its purpose is carried out. Whenever I connect to my soul, I feel this tingling sensation in my heart. I call it Love and this Love is what gives me power to keep going. So, by acting from this very loving place I can do nothing, but good. 

 

TPM: Who is the most important person in your life and how does this person inspire and motivate you?

I do not have one specific most important person in my life as I am blessed to be surrounded by many wonderful people whom I all love and respect equally. They are my inspiration to become the best version of myself. What motivates me the most is my very strong sense for equality and the desire to give back to people in need.

 

TPM: Can you tell us a few children`s names and their most powerful qualities?

We have over 300 students and all of them are unique.

I would prefer giving you some examples of former students:

1. Pranab&Pallab (Male):

Two brothers we randomly met in the village before we started our project. During this time they were working for their parents in the field. When they started studying at our school, they proofed to be exceptionally talented and once they left to High School, they got the opportunity to skip a full year and got promoted to a higher class. If we didnt provide them with access to education, they would still be working in the fields not being aware of their rights.

2. Suvendu (Male)
He left our school and is now reading in Class 6: He is within the Top 3 of all students in his class.

3. Chaitali (Female)
She left our school and is now reading in Class 5: She is within the Top 3 of all students in her class.

4. Ajina (Female)

She is from a very poor family and is enrolled in our Education Support Programme. At her age girls usually get married off. However, she is fully aware of her rights and dreams of becoming a school teacher. Her goal is to become independent and fight against early marriage.

5. Julekha (Female)

She was enrolled in our Education Support Programme and was going to get married in 2016. Thanks to our teachers and social workers who managed to convince her parents not to choose this path, she is now studying at University. 

 

TPM: How do you see yourself in the next 10 years?

I would already find it difficult if you asked me where I see myself in 1 year. (laugh)
I`m the kind of person who takes every day how it comes. I do plan what`s necessary and Im very reliable. However, I mostly go with the flow. I have a lot of trust in the universe and I know it will lead me to where I must be. There is one thing I’m sure about: I will be helping people. Its what my soul needs. I believe it’s my life purpose.

 

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