At Smith Teamaker, one of our company goals is to give back in a meaningful way to the people harvesting our carefully selected teas. To achieve this goal, we have partnered with local non-profit Mercy Corps and are contributing funds to an educational program called SERP (School Education Retention Program). To support SERP and Mercy Corps and to learn more, grab a cup of Golden Tippy Assam and visit the Smith Teamaker Holiday SERP Fundraiser.
In addition, scroll down to follow along with Kim on a recent trip to India.
Based in tea gardens in Assam, India, SERP provides free academic coaching via community-sourced teachers to disadvantaged secondary school students. This additional attention provides the students with the tools they need to pass exams and continue to college, for which scholarships are available.
To date, the small team at Smith has positively impacted the lives of 1200 students and 100% of them who passed their final board exam have gone on to college.
Smith Teamaker's Trip to India (summer, 2016)
The following three posts are Kim's account of the recent journey of a few members of the Smith family to India:
Part I: SERP Coaching Center Visit
July 14, 2016
On a pre-dawn morning in the heart of monsoon season, our traveling team from Portland drives on deeply rutted tracks through tea gardens, several miles off the main road in Dibrugarh. Passing clusters of small huts, we catch a few early risers carrying about early morning routines. Crossing an open grassy patch, we enter an un-lit concrete building, surprised to find it at capacity with a mix of male and female 9th and 10th level students. Books open, pencils sharpened, and a crisp attentiveness to the teacher, 50 eager minds begin each day working on two hours of intensive Math, Science and English at one of the eight SERP coaching centers.
Our affable host and Project Manager of the Assam SERP program, Binayak Dewan, introduces us to the teachers, assistants and the respectful and polite students sitting on wooden benches. These bright students are dressed in colorful fabrics, neatly groomed and ready for another full day of learning. While the students had been informed of our visit, they are still surprised that we had traveled all the way form America to meet them. If standing before a group of teenagers is challenging at any hour, try at 5:00 am and with context and nuance being lost in translation. What feels awkward at first is soon met with smiles. We do our best to explain that we represent the team at Smith Teamaker who has sponsored the coaching center project with Mercy Corp since 2012 and how impressed we are at each of his and her dedication to learning. One by one, they graciously introduce themselves, proudly stating their name, study subject and level. A few tell us in more detail the reasons why they value the center. To share these beautiful stories with the team back home, our photographer captures their soft-spoken voices with her hand held video camera. They tell their stories with humility and vision.
The SERP project takes a village to succeed. The classrooms are provided by tea estate management with chalkboards and rows of rough wooden benches for desks and seats. The minimal school supplies are doled out and shared. The dedicated teachers go the extra mile to get these students over the threshold of the national exams. The SERP on the ground team knows the importance of this threshold in Indian education and fight for each student. They know statistics show that if the student does not pass 9th level exams the first time, 90% do not try again and leave school permanently, In truth, the majority of these SERP students have not been afforded a consistent and supported education through the 8th level, often having to work or tend to the family and have missed key lessons in overcrowded classrooms. They arrive underprepared to pass the standardized state exams and the SERP coaching centers prepare them to become test ready, giving them the option to continue their education. The success story says it all: the pass rate has gone from 30% to 73%, on par with the national average. This amazing positive reversal reflects how much the students want to learn and grow. 4 years. 8 coaching centers. 1,259 active students. 76 scholarship recipients. One SERP.
In addition to the academic support, the students tell us why they enjoy coming to the centers each morning. In step with teens everywhere, they get to meet up with their friends, play sports together, share ideas, opinions and dreams. They feel acknowledged for showing up and encouraged by their teachers and peers. Binayak informs us that the scholarships are not granted solely on grades but factor in attendance, participation and contribution. It’s awarded to those that show up with a positive attitude and work hard.
Our group learns that initially, the coaching centers were set up to offer after-school coaching, but the darker winter months made it challenging to work without lighting in the buildings or on the pathways to and from the center. Girls especially are required to be inside by nightfall. Therefore, the idea to open the centers before the regular school day was launched and the students arrive at 5am for 2 hours of group and individual instruction.
The challenges these hard working students endure on a daily basis is eye-opening for all of us, especially for the two high school young men from the States. The SERP students come long and far by foot or bicycle over dirt paths, with no other means of transportation. They don’t have the luxury of internet, computers, libraries and all the resources that are typically offered in the States. Besides their homework, they literally have home work to complete as part of their family duties. But we so clearly see that they do not complain about the early start, nor the added work load, nor the lack of resources, nor the long hours-- but instead, we can feel their gratitude. With the support of the coaching center, they can dream big: Doctors. Teachers. Engineers. Nurses. Artists. It can come true…with SERP.
In conversations with Binayak and his team, we discuss other ways that we at Smith Teamaker might be able to engage with the students on a more person to person level. We ask how to connect our team in Portland to actively support these students. Obviously, funding to keep the centers up and running is first and foremost, and we brainstorm a few ideas that Smith staff may be able to execute:
- Provide arts/crafts materials, books or games that students earn as prizes or simply enjoy when lessons are complete
- Send English language games (Kim found several in Darjeeling and sent already)
- Share photos, exchange letters
- Engage via social media, WhatsApp, Facebook or Skype time at the central office
In conclusion, visiting one of the coaching centers in person is a humbling experience. The work ethic these students exhibit is truly inspiring. Their appreciation for the opportunities that the SERP program offers them is reflected in their sheer determination. Their gratitude to us for making the effort to visit them lit up the room. Every member of the Smith Teamaker family can feel proud of the significant difference our contributions make in the many lives and families of the tea producing regions we depend on.
Part II: SERP Graduation Ceremony
July 14th, 2016
Our traveling Smith Teamaker and the Smith family party arrives at the Romai Tea Estate outside of Dibrugarh, Assam to participate in the 2016 graduation ceremony of forty students (whom) have participated in the School Education Retention Program (SERP) Coaching Centers and completed their academic requirements for the 10th year levels. The ceremony is held underneath a semi- covered concrete pad facing a lush greenspace; which serves as pasture, community garden and soccer field. From all of the decorations, people and energy, it is evident that this is a very special occasion.
With an overcast sky, 100 % humidity, 90 degrees and distant monsoon squalls, we feel as if we are sitting in a steam bath rather than at a dais. At the front of the long table of local and regional officials, sits a beautifully arranged Pooja table with a framed portrait of Steve draped in a prayer scarf, surrounded by flowers and candles. Binayak Dewan, SERP Program Director, opens the ceremony, with an honorary tribute to Steve’s life, a blessing, lighting of the oil lantern and one minute of respectful silence. We are all very touched by this unexpected tribute.
The graduating students represent the SERP centers from Romai, Singlijan, Basmatia and Dikom Tea Estates. Proud parents, siblings, younger students, garden management and relatives fill the open-air hall to overflowing. The dignitary dais includes Assam’s Deputy Minister, MS Mannivaran, who came with his armed entourage and is the featured speaker of the day. Mr. Mannivaran delivers his speech three times: in the local dialect, Hindi and English, extolling the benefits of education as a means to improve lives for the young people of the estates. The packed house holds each and every word. He expresses heartfelt gratitude for the support Smith Teamaker provides to the region. We learn later that it is rare for Mr. Mannivaran to show up personally and it is usually his assistant sent to do the honors. Today is special.
Another special guests who speaks is Anjan Kumar Gogoi, retired Air Marshal, Chief Advisor and son of SEWA CHAI founders. SEWA is the local non-profit that Mercy Corp has linked up with for our funding requirements. They provide support to the SERP students by making home visits, talking with parents and motivating students to participate in the coaching centers. They also provide some vocational training for drop out students and promote the CHAI fuel efficiency stove project.
A warm and affable fellow, Mr. Hussein, explains when he was a local Assamese student, he had a dream of becoming a pilot and was able to achieve that dream by working hard at his education. He enthusiastically shares with the audience, that if he could achieve his dream, so could a donkey, therefore, pretty much everyone can. It is a funny anecdote and well received by the audience as the humidity builds like a pressure cooker.
Just as SEWA’s Jean Paul is getting a handle on a recurring faulty microphone as the event’s MC, the sky blackens as a huge crack of thunder cracks the rainclouds open. The rain pummels down in drops the size of golf balls, causing a cacophony on the tin roof, drowning out JP’s next introductions. The peripheral folks, armed guards and dogs squeeze under the shelter as only the cows head out to the open field for a pelting massage shower. JP once again attempts to out volume the monsoon, but is feeble in the attempt. The microphone sputters as the monsoon splashes into the electronic equipment. There is an attempt to move it to a drier place but it only makes it a few inches beyond the edge of the downpour. Surprisingly, no one is electrocuted. JP, however, is defeated and uses his own voice to the end.
Eventually the rains tapers and Kim takes her turn at the microphone to congratulate the students and acknowledge the support of parents, teachers and program coaches who facilitated the success of the graduates. Taking turns, Kim, Amy Bourne and Jack Smith, present each student with a giant certificate of 10,000 Rs., new book bags and a personal note of congratulations. Initially the students are quite serious and shy, but at the conclusion of the ceremony, they all come forward to take photos, practice their English with Jack and even get a few selfies with us, eventually showing smiles of jubilance, like teens the world over. It is a delight to feel so welcomed and appreciated by the students, to be able to represent the entire Smith Teamaker family and to witness that our combined efforts are making a real difference.
Part III: Road Naming Ceremony
July 16th, 2016
It’s monsoon July and Darjeeling is enshrouded in clouds, obscuring the picturesque views of the great Himalayas that apparently flank the horizon. Our only glimpse of the tallest peaks in the world is at postcard stands. The traveling band of Portlandians: Kim and Jack Smith, along with friends Amy Bourne, Lucas Fender and Diane Isaacs, travel up to Darjeeling to be part of a very special road naming ceremony honoring Steve Smith and his tangible contributions to the world of tea in Darjeeling. The road of honor is the brainchild of our gracious host, long- time tea business and personal friend, Mohan Chirimar with his wife, Aditi and college graduate sons, Adidiya and Anirudh. All nine of us had flown up from Kolkata to Bagdogra and endured 5 hours of winding roads up to high elevations of the Singtom/ Steinthal Tea Estate. After months of Mohan’s warnings to never drive in India at night, we found ourselves on narrow,( cliff-hugging), rutted out serpentine roads in thick fog and deluging rain, and…wait for it… in the pitch dark. One word that pops to mind is harrowing.
Grateful to make it to another breakfast, one look outside and it is clear- well, incredibly unclear- that it’s a rainy day with zero visibility and the forecast does not bring any optimism for a worried Mohan. He has planned for this road naming ceremony for months and he is as gloomy as the clouds rolling in the dining room window. In the days before the festivities, the monsoon rains had been pouring non-stop and they had not yet relented at breakfast. In Himalayan fashion, the clouds descend limiting the visibility to literally inches at times. All of this moisture is great for the tea gardens, but not for open-air celebrations. The car ride to the new road is in silence except for the diligent windshield wipers trying to toss the deluge of water away in rapid rhythm.
At the top of the new road, people have already begun to gather: tea workers and their families, boys from the Northpoint Academy who had volunteered to plant trees, a local Hindu priest and Buddhist Rimpoche and special guests and dignitaries from Darjeeling and the region. We leave the comfort of the car with umbrellas as our shields.
Then, just as the start of the ceremony approaches, there is dramatic shift. The clouds begin to rise up- revealing the new road as if on cue. The sloppy rain droplets diffuse into a light frizzle (also the word for my new hair style), a glow of sunshine illuminates the ribbon of asphalt descending through the tea gardens. It is asynchronistic choreography of weather and event that cannot be explained, only experienced.
Unlike the school graduation we had attended only two days prior, this ceremony has no dais or long tables, no audio equipment or planned speeches, no audience seating. Instead, it is a gathering at the top of a road, but not just any road. This road carries the love and honor of a revered teamaker, who blessed this tea growing region with his passion for tea, his compassion for others and his beautiful smile. Today is all about Steve Smith.
Prayer scarves and Nepalese hats are exchanged by local children in traditional Nepalese costumes. Hanging vats of incense infuse the thick morning air adding a mystical essence. Dueling priests chant their blessings in spiritual harmony. Seemingly from out of nowhere a pot of hot chai is poured into small cups in cool hands. Mohan raises his cup and offers a few carefully chosen words of appreciation and recognition to the crowd culminating with a toast to the new road: “For safety and good health for all of those who would travel upon it”. If there was a drum to be rolled, it would happen at the unveiling of the large painted sign which reads “Steve Smith Route: A New Way to Healthy Life”.
The experience of being on a freshly black-topped road, smooth and free from any potholes, at nearly 7,000 feet in the mountains, is a rare occurrence in India. It had taken over a year of challenging labor on near inaccessible terrain, conflicting official approvals and massive expense and today, it was open for all.
Now draped in multiple prayer scarves, with our checkered Nepalese hats, mix and match rain gear and muddy shoes, we each receive a blessing from both the Buddhist and Hindu priests. With red smudges applied to our foreheads and red string wristbands tied onto our right wrists, it is time to walk down the road.
As we descend down Steve Smith Route, we are humbled by the effort it has taken to build it. The tiered walls of concrete support have been mixed one bag at a time, without machinery. The foundation hand-dug by workers who appear to be wiry teen agers in short pants and rubber galoshes. It is literally cobbled together bucket by bucket.
As part of the new road beautification, Mohan organized the students of the local prep school, Northpoint to plant 1,000 trees along the route. In addition to the prep school students, other villagers carry saplings, clomping over the wet and muddy embankments to find little holes. The support team reminds, “Don’t forget the compost”. As we wind our way down 3 meters of newly paved switchbacks that bypass the steep, rutted main street of a pop-up village, we are enchanted by the mystical tea gardens of Singtom. Even as we are offered rides, we choose to walk the extra kilometers past the factory into the 1862 Singtom Tea Estate Bungalow where a houseful of special guests are gathered for a reception. Ignoring the forecast’s call for continued monsoon rains, the clouds billow across the sky like giant kites dancing in the high altitude winds, allowing the purest sunshine to ignite the gardens.
The entire CHAI team from the Darjeeling projects and even the CHAI Regional Director, Milan Nagar, who traveled from Delhi for the event, express their gratitude for the vision and support that began with Steve Smith decades earlier. They are proud to carry forth his commitment to make a difference for the families and communities that work in the tea gardens. It is an afternoon filled with home cooked foods, champagne toasts and gifts of appreciation back to Mohan to celebrate the completion of this very special route.
Looking, listening, feeling: the people that come together today all agree -- this road naming is like no other celebration, the 3K like no other road, the gratitude like no other expression. This teamaker like no other. Today, we acknowledge the Steve Smith Route is a healthier way to life.