The Tikjuk Project Story
Ron Klein is a U.S. expatriate, semi-retired English professor at a women’s college in Hiroshima. Some years ago during a Himalayas hiking vacation in Sikkim Province India, he met Ms. Chandra Yonzen, who had started St. Xavier’s, a school/orphanage in the town of Yuksom. He decided to give her some money to buy notebooks for the students and stayed in touch. Over the years, Ms. Chandra moved St. Xavier’s to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim in the eastern part of the province, and then to Tikjuk between Pelling and Geyzing in the western part of province, where the school/orphanage has been for the last six years or so. Dr. Klein in the meantime has taken up the role of fund-raiser for St. Xavier’s not only in Hiroshima but around the world.
Annually, Dr. Klein would make the pilgrimage back to his U.S. home in Philadelphia. On one of these trips a few years ago he stopped in New Orleans to visit his childhood friend Randall Feldman, a member of the Rotary Club of New Orleans. He described to Mr. Feldman his work with St. Xavier’s. Mr. Feldman asked him if had approached Rotary for support. Mr. Klein said no. So, Mr. Feldman took the idea of a St. Xavier’s project to the board of the Rotary Club of New Orleans.
The Board was enthusiastic about doing something with the school and asked Mr. Feldman to look into it. Mr. Feldman spent some time contacting a variety of club and district leaders in the region. Unfortunately, the closest clubs – those in Gangtok and Darjeeling (the tea growing area) – are some five-seven hours away, depending on the state of the roads, which in the mountainous Himalayas, can be quite difficult. Without any club to partner with, the idea of a Rotary Foundation Global Grant was out of the question. These grants of $30,000 or more require a partner club near the site of the project.
In the end, however, the Rotary Club of New Orleans decided to go ahead on its own which would lower the cost of the project and not require a partner Rotary club in India.
St. Xavier’s has about 110 students half of whom are orphans from age three to eight. In talks with Dr. Klein and Ms. Chandra, it was decided that the project that would have the greatest immediate impact would be to bring first Internet service to St. Xavier’s. The school had a couple of obsolete computers that didn’t work very
well and not much else. It was decided to buy four desktop computers for the students, one lap top for the teachers, a projector and a printer, and a variety of support supplies along with Internet connection for three years.
With Dr. Klein’s help on one of his regular trips to India, prices for the types of equipment they needed were found. Mr. Feldman put together a budget. The club board approved the project and committed to an $11,000 budget. Now all they had to do was to get the school the equipment and service. Easier said than done. A member of the Rotary Club of New Orleans, Knud Berthelsen, was tasked with trying to buy the equipment over the internet. That proved impossible. Neither Amazon India nor HP India would accept American credit cards over the web. Mr. Feldman tried obtaining his own Indian credit card but was told that Americans could not get one.
Mr. Feldman was able to connect with Assistant Governor for Rotary District 3240 and member of the Rotary Club of Darjeeling, Diwakar Thapa. He found a computer store in Siliguri, a city some five+ hours away. Dr. Klein on one of his trips to visit St. Xavier’s met up with Ms. Chandra, located the store and were able to begin the purchasing process. But it was not simple.
The idea was that Mr. Feldman would wire money directly to the store in India. But the store staff person, Mr. Negi, told Dr. Klein that his store couldn’t accept a wired payment. Dr. Klein put Mr. Feldman directly in touch with Mr. Negi. Mr. Negi told Mr. Feldman that his store could accept his credit card. The next day, however, he said he couldn’t accept a credit card over the phone. After some discussion, he said wired funds could be sent to the store bank account. However, then, his accountant said Mr. Feldman couldn’t do that either.
Dr. Klein came to the rescue. Although it was not possible to accept Mr. Feldman’s credit card number, Mr. Negi said it was possible to swipe Dr. Klein’s card in person. Dr. Klein, having just used his card, said that this would be acceptable and would get reimbursed by Mr. Feldman. However, Mr. Negi’s machine would not accept Dr. Klein’s card. Dr. Klein was not to be dissuaded so easily. He asked Mr. Negi if there was an ATM nearby. Mr. Negi said there was so, Dr. Klein and Ms. Chandra went off to the ATM and got enough Indian Rupees to purchase the computers. However, the store did not have all of the equipment needed. Mr. Negi said there was another store in the area that had the other equipment.
Dr. Klein and Ms. Chandra went off to the other store. This store said it would accept Dr. Klein’s credit card, and much to everyone’s surprise, it did. They eventually put all the equipment into Ms. Chandra’s car. Dr. Klein left for the rest of his vacation, and Ms. Chandra headed up the mountain back to St. Xavier’s. This was all quite complicated and not all of details and timing may be exactly right, but this is the gist of what happened.
When Mr. Feldman asked Dr. Klein how he would like to be reimbursed for almost $5,000 of purchases, he said to bring the money with him on his scheduled visit to St. Xavier’s and give the entire amount to Ms. Chandra as a donation to the school. It is no wonder that anyone touring the school will see pictures of Dr. Klein hanging on several walls.
St. Xavier’s building is up a relatively steep climb from the road below it. It is a beautiful setting in the Himalayas (pronounced Him-mal-yaz by the locals) in the midst of a relatively poor community. Electricity can be intermittent. Chickens run freely around. However, unlike some other areas of India south of there, no cattle roam the roads.
Three miles from St. Xavier’s village of Tikjuk is the town of Pelling which is a center for tourists and hikers. There are a number of hotels. Mr. Feldman’s hotel had no electricity when he arrived. The hotel itself had no heat, but it did have spiders as large as a hand. Internet service was available in the reception area when the electricity was working.
Mr. Feldman visited St. Xavier’s in May, arriving from New Orleans by taking four airplanes and one helicopter to a helipad at Pelling. It is possible to drive the last leg of the trip, rather than take a helicopter, but the roads are iffy and the trip can take five to seven hours, while the helicopter provided the possibility of adventure. And adventure it was.
The flight going up to Pelling had to turn back shortly after takeoff when a storm front came through the area. Luckily, he was able to get on another flight 90 minutes later. The flight coming back three days later had its own issues. The airport for the return trip was shut down for a few hours due to air force military exercises. Luckily, Mr. Feldman had built in some buffer time on the return helicopter schedule, so was able to make his flight … just.
St. Xavier’s students and staff greeted Mr. Feldman warmly when he arrived. They presented him with the ceremonial shawls called Khadas or Khataks, depending on whether you are speaking Nepali or Tibetan. Ms. Chandra led him into a large classroom where there were seats of honor for him and Ms. Chandra and where they were served traditional Nepali snacks. And then for the next three hours, they were treated by the students and staff dressed in traditional costumes performing a variety of musical presentations of dance, singing, and prayer.
Mr. Feldman spent the next two days visiting at the school and downloading new software onto the computers. One of the former students, now in high school, still lives at St. Xavier’s and is a computer whiz and was able to take charge of much of the computer work.
Mr. Feldman also had to check in with the local authorities. Although he had a passport, visa, and special permit, he still needed go through additional in-person clearances. The area is relatively close to the Chinese (Tibetan) border and security is an issue.
Through this project, the introduction of the Internet to St. Xavier’s will open new worlds of understanding to the children in this isolated area. One example. The students knew Mr. Feldman was from the United States. He asked them if they had heard of New Orleans. No one had. He said, “You know, this is where jazz is from.” They had never heard of jazz. The world now awaits them as they take the first steps down their new electronic doorway.
The project picked up additional support in the New Orleans. The Rotary Club of Metairie Sunrise contributed funds to the project and acted as the recipient for tax deductible contributions. The Interact Clubs of Warren Easton Charter High School and Benjamin Franklin High School also took part. Outside of Rotary, the National Honor Societies of Benjamin Franklin High School and West Jefferson High School also supported the project. And, of course, The Rotary Foundation through a District Grant laid the basis for much of the fund-raising that has followed.
This first phase of this project has raised $9,700 towards its goal of $11,000. Left to fund is the Internet connection for the third year.
Currently the project continues moving forward with planning for Phase II which will enhance the educational function and implement a sustainability plan.
The Educational Enhancement function includes expanding the number of computers from five to 50, so that students from different classes taking part at the same time can simultaneously have access to this resource. In addition, the club seeks to send a “Vocational Training Team” to St. Xavier’s. This team’s purpose spans both parts of Phase II. One part of the training team will work to improve the skill set of the St. Xavier’s faculty on the use of computers in the classroom. The other part of the training team will work with staff on entrepreneurial initiatives that can enhance the income production of the school. Examples include establishing an Internet café and the purchase of commercial washers and dryers to service not only St. Xavier’s but the surrounding tourist hotels, many of which send their laundry out as much as five hours away to get cleaned. The staff is not knowledgeable about start-up entrepreneurial businesses.
It is the intent of the Vocational Training Team to have both Indian and American team members.
Phase III will be concerned with the security and safety of St. Xavier’s.
Phase IV will be involved with improving and increasing current and future building and equipment needs.
As true with many international Rotary projects, the initiative has not only affected the recipient of the funds, but it has opened the eyes of the Rotary Club of New Orleans and its partners to possibilities they never knew existed. Now they have taken that first step. The world awaits them as well.