Written by Emily Foltz
Meena is finishing her 6th year as head teacher in charge of CRHP’s Joyful Learning Preschool. As she walks through the local slum, Indiranagar, she kindly and confidently checks in on families; her presence is felt and respected by everyone who meets her. Meena’s dedication to the school, the students, and CRHP’s mission has contributed to the marked improvement of health, educational progress, and opportunities of children from Indiranagar.
Meena was born to a mother who was a nurse and a father who worked as a labor manager in Kuwait; she finished her schooling as a lab and leprosy technician. After working with the Government for 1 year as a leprosy technician, she joined CRHP in 1999, working with the Mobile Health Team in tribal communities in a more distant community, Bhandardara. There, she conducted hemoglobin and other basic health screenings while mentoring young girls through the Adolescent Girls Program. After 2 years in Bhandardara, Meena came to CRHP’s hospital in 2001 to work as a lab technician. She explained that because her family had a background in social and health work, coming to CRHP was an easy choice. She was excited about CRHP’s mission, saying working at CRHP “has made my family large.”
In 2005, Meena left CRHP to get married and start her family. However, she arrived back at CRHP in 2009 looking for a job to help support her and her son, but at that time, there were no lab technician vacancies. Not left wanting, Meena was instead offered the head teacher position at the Joyful Learning Preschool. Meena reflects, “I was so happy they trusted me enough to offer me the position.” Despite her lack of formal education training, she vowed to try her best. Her first task was to become familiar with the nearby slum, Indiranagar, where most of the preschoolers live.
“I didn’t know slum life before,” Meena recalls thinking back to her first exposure to Indiranagar conducting a door-to-door health survey. On her first day of teaching, Meena was struck by the caste-ism she observed amongst the slum children. Unlike other project villages she had worked in, there was no sense of community in Indiranager, and it was starkly evident in the children’s behavior. “The kids would not hold hands with children from other castes. I told them everyone is created in God’s image; you are all brothers and sisters, so everyone should treat each other well and work and learn together.” Now, students at the school joyfully play with others of all castes without a second thought.
Slowly, Meena has gained the trust of the people of Indiranagar, which has allowed her work to produce impressive change in the slum community. The trust is most evident in the increase of regular preschool attendance from 20 children to 65 and in the change in health behaviors in Indiranagar. Because Meena has health and social work experience, people trust her with their personal and health problems and took her advice. Consequently, Meena has come to function as another Village Health Worker for the slum. Every morning, she walks door-to-door to check in with the children’s families, looking out for health problems and signs of trouble, and of course making sure the kids are bathed and ready for school! As a result of Meena’s teaching and daily visits, the health practices and status of Indiranagar have markedly improved. The children learn about personal hygiene at school, and they go home and teach their parents, leading to significant behavior changes such as daily bucket baths and decreased use of tobacco by women.
Meena finds inspiration for her often-challenging work through her faith that serving the poor means serving God. In her role as a preschool teacher, she is able to serve those most in need, and that is most meaningful to her. She receives additional inspiration from CRHP’s directors, Mr. Ravi Arole and Dr. Shobha Arole, and preschool founder, Kaat Landuyt. Under their influence, she learned how to love and care for the children as a teacher; they gave her the opportunity to fulfill her dream to care for the poor despite her lack of any prior formal training or experience in this area. Meena smiled as she recounted how Kaat taught her to lovingly teach the children, using an interactive approach rarely employed in Indian schools.
When discussing her future goals, Meena spoke only of the children and people she serves as the Joyful Learning teacher—a clear reflection of Meena’s compassion and commitment to the CRHP mission. “This school should always run non-stop. That is my goal.” Meena also hopes that students from Joyful Learning will be supported throughout their education to prevent any breaks in their schooling. “I would like to see them in a good position [in life].” Thanks to Meena and other dedicated Joyful Learning and CRHP staff, friends, and donors, these kids have that chance for the first time.
Today, Meena has two children and continues to love her job as a preschool teacher. “Before I became a lab technician, it was my dream to become a teacher. Because of CRHP, I have been able to achieve my dream.” When asked what her favorite part of working at CRHP was, Meena replied without hesitation and with much joy it was just being able to be a preschool teacher.