If the government schools in rural areas of India are in such a bad condition, it speaks badly about our country.

How will the teachers be motivated to teach? How will the kids be motivated to come to school? And how will the parents be motivated to send children to school?

Let’s not forget we are talking about the next generation of citizens.

Here’s Mr. Vadiraj’s story, founder of “One School at a Time – OSAAT”- an organization that helps rebuild the infrastructure of government schools in rural India.

How did you get started on your philanthropy journey?

We were a group of engineers working in the USA, in the late 90s and early 2000. We had a lot of interest in Music and Art and would practice over the weekends. We put up theatre performances once every 3 months and had a Band that performed in an orchestra twice a year. While doing all this, we also raised funds for natural calamities in India. We raised money for the Latur earthquake, for floods, etc. But we weren’t satisfied as we didn’t know where the money was going to the right people and if it was making any impact at all.

We had a strong urge to do something for our country. Once, when I came home for a visit, a school teacher approached me. He said, “Last year, because of rain, the school building collapsed. We started building it again, but we ran out of money. Now the children are forced to sit under a tree on the bare floor, and if it rains we have to cancel the class and send them home.” When I visited the place, I saw that the school was in a really bad condition. So, when I came back to the US, my friends and I decided to raise funds for this school and make a donation to rebuild it. So, we did that and gave the money to the school, and they were very happy. This was the first higher primary school we contributed to in Bajagoli, near Udupi a village close to my native place.

“It’s because of our education in India that we came to the US to pursue our dreams. We always wanted to do something in the field of education. It gives us a sense of accomplishment that our money goes to these schools, which will impact the lives of thousands of students over the next 50-60 years.“

Motivated by this endeavour, we did some further research and found that around 27,000 schools in Karnataka alone are in a really bad condition. Most of the Government school buildings, which are 40-50 years old have deteriorated to the extent that the roof could fall at any time.

The fact is it’s a herculean task to fix all 27,000 schools. So we started the initiative with the aim of fixing one school at a time. All our friends came together to fix one school, as a result, for the next 50-60 years around 200 children will walk through that school every year without fear.

To raise money to rebuild the schools, we started putting up some shows in the USA. The first show we did was Jogadasiri. It was based on both, the Bhavagita and Janapadagita. People donated generously and we raised $4,000. After some time, we started our signature event, called Naatya Raaga. It’s a 2-day event for children in the Bay Area, who are learning Indian classical dance and music. On day one we conduct a dance competition and on day two, a music competition. About 300-400 children participate in the program and also make donations to build schools. We also introduced a band called Raaga. It used to raise money every year or alternate year for the cause. In the last 2 years, we started a new signature event called Vidyadhana, which identifies philanthropists in the field of education. We bring them to our shows and request them to adopt a school. This event has been extremely successful in raising funds in the US.

“ There are several layers to the task of building an entire school. The infrastructure is the fundamental need. Beyond that, you need teachers, teaching aids, a suitable environment for learning, and value-added activities. Most people work on the latter, but the fundamental need remains unaddressed. If we can fix that, the effect on the others will be more prominent.”

“ We want to do it holistically and invest our time and money for serious results. We don’t want to invest in one-time efforts and walk away, where no one is accountable. ”

Please tell us about the success on this journey?

After some time, we realised that rebuilding a school is not easy, it is capital-intensive, process-oriented, and there’s a lot of bureaucracy involved. So, we created a template for fixing the schools. We thought that if we presented a template, people will donate. It’s not that people don’t want to pay, they are not sure if their money will be utilised and whether the result will be seen.

So, as a part of our process, we registered our organisation, got the charity status, and recently we also got the FCRA status. To do our work in an organised manner, we recruited a lot of full-time and part-time volunteers. Mostly, retirees who wanted to do something different, took care of the core part; while others used to identify a piece of work and do it.

We also connected with the Alumni of schools, colleges, and employees of companies to come together for this cause. Many Indians in the US are united by groups like Maharashtra Mandal, Kannada Koota, or UP association. We encouraged them to take up one school and work for it, which can have multiple effects.

While arranging funds, we requested many companies and individuals to adopt a school and rebuild the infrastructure. But many times, they asked, “what if the school is built, but the children don’t come to school, then the entire money and time would be wasted.” So, we made sure to choose schools that were likely to give the best return on investment. We have some guidelines for this. Firstly, the school must have a good number of children. Secondly, the school should have committed teachers and, thirdly, we look at the school’s management and teachers’ level of interest and their needs.

We started a process to identify “School Champions”. In this process, the school that needs to be rebuilt goes through an evaluation, which involves multiple visits, and if we find that it is the right school, we take it forward. We work with multiple specialist groups like engineering, finance and project management.

When the community works together, even the most difficult task can be completed with relative ease. We experienced this when we built one school in Cholenahalli, Karnataka. There was a lady teacher who worked hard to make sure that the school is rebuilt. But incidentally, she was transferred before the inauguration. All the ladies of the village stood up and asked the administrative head, who was addressing this function, to cancel this transfer. It was the first time, we saw a community coming together.

We always encourage the village community to work together to support the cause. We give them a sense of ownership and ask them to do the groundwork, like arranging all the necessary documents, contacting MNREGA for funds, talking with PWD or Zila Panchayats, etc. Once these basic requirements are completed, we take the task of rebuilding the school. When the community owns it, the School Development and Monitoring Committee (SDMC) will be more aware, making it a sustainable model.

We also work in partnership with local organisations like Rotary and others working in education. These organisations might be running programs like teacher’s training, value-added activities like Yoga or distribution of scholarships. We ask them to work with us and rebuild the school. Once the school is ready, they can introduce their programs in the school.

We focus on two channels to build our schools – the first is raising funds in the US and the second is getting the support of CSR programs in India.

“As of now, we have completed rebuilding 27 schools across India.“

We invite the representatives from CSR teams on visits to our school’s inauguration or groundbreaking ceremony. Once they see a completed building, they fall in love and become all the more committed. They ask us, “When is our new school going to be rebuilt?” and they are ready to donate to, or adopt that school.

All of the above steps have helped us to rebuild the infrastructure of government schools in rural India.

We constantly motivate our investors by taking them on visits as well and showing them the school’s new infrastructure. One such family, Keerthi Melkote’s, has donated to a tribal school in Alambadi, Karnataka. Now after completion, the school looks very beautiful and the donor was overwhelmed when he saw the pictures of the new school. This gives them a sense of accomplishment. Another donor, Raghunandan, founder of “Taxi for Sure” donated to a school in Gurupura, Karnataka. When we took him, along with his mother to show them the newly built school, his mother was so happy to see it. Now he wants to donate to build one school every year.

We now have a viable template to rebuild schools. Committed people working for this cause, and different organisations, companies, partners have started working with us passionately. We have earned credibility and people are more aware of what we do and are ready to donate generously.

“If we provide good infrastructure, the teachers are more receptive and they teach well. Also, children are more motivated to come every day.”

What are your future plans?

We want to connect these newly built schools with each other, to create a sense of competition. If we recognize a good school, we will reward them. We want the teachers to be super-motivated as they are considered to be the pillars of the Nation. We have already found a few creative schools. So, this year we are planning to call all the teachers and start this process. We are also planning to conduct culturals and competitions for these schools. We will also be announcing a support structure as we want these competitions to be meaningful.

We have an in-house design team, that works passionately and has limitless imagination. They design the look of the schools and came up with a concept called “BALA – Building as a Learning Aid”. The walls of the school are designed to teach geometrical figures to the kids. The volunteers contact the local contractors for this work and visit the site every time. We want this to continue in our future projects.

Once the infrastructure is built, the next step is maintaining it. We want to set up a process, in which we want to train the school’s management authorities to maintain the buildings by themselves, over a period of 5 years. For example, every 6 months, the roof of the school should be cleaned and all stagnant water should be drained, toilets should be cleaned regularly, etc. Partnering with local NGOs in the coming years will help kickstart and sustain the process. We are also parking some funds for maintenance and visit the schools every 6 months.

Sometimes even the villagers take on the responsibility of maintaining the school. There is an instance related to this – it was our 25th school in Kattemalalvadi, Karnataka. We invited comedian-actor Mandya Ramesh to the inauguration. But just before the inauguration, some boy had hit the window with a stone and it was broken. Mandya Ramesh was very upset with the whole incident and scolded the villagers for the same. After 2 weeks, we came to know that the villagers had donated for the repair and every year as part of their Jatrey, they will donate money to the school.

We also constantly try to introduce new innovative engineering techniques in our school’s infrastructure. The school which we completed in Benkipura, Karnataka was built using puff/panel sheets for both walls and roofing. This will ensure the long life of walls and will not require any painting. We want to replicate this to every school we will build in the future.

Reconstructing a school costs around 30 to 40 lakhs. We are looking at ways to cut costs without compromising on quality. We are negotiating with steel and cement companies like JSW to cut down the cost. We have also inked an MOU with the Indian Plumbing Association. They want to build toilets for schools, so we asked them to join hands with us. Toilets are extremely important. Now we are building the toilets and they are funding it. We want to bring companies and organisations like these together to rebuild the schools at a low cost.

We are multiplying in terms of the number of schools we’re rebuilding. CSR activities have picked up and a lot of people want to work with us. The entire process of creating a template, contacting various organisations for their support, arranging for funds is now streamlined in India. It’s time to take it to the next level.

“We built 3 schools in 2018. This year we have already finished rebuilding 3 schools and 6 schools are in progress, so around 10 schools will be done this year.“

How can someone work with you or join you?

Anybody from the field of education, engineering or project management and having a passion to work for the underprivileged schools in rural India can join us. They should have passion, we will empower them, and they have to use their creativity to get work done.

It is an organization with no hierarchy, we all are here with one purpose to see schools rebuilt in rural areas. This is our only objective. None of us are paid. Our biggest asset is that there is minimal overhead because we are a team of enthusiastic and motivated volunteers, who work passionately for the cause. We just want to do something good for the children. This has been attracting a lot of corporate attention as well.

Anyone who wants to explore new places in India and wants to work for school children in remote areas can also join us. For example, there is a village called “Aben” in Manipur, rich with natural resources but, it is very primitive. Reaching this place wasn’t an easy task, but our volunteers went through all the hurdles and worked towards repairing the school building and completed it in 2018.

We have contact details on the website http://osaat.org/ or you can get in touch with founders of Your Philanthropy Story to get in touch with us.

A lot of people contact us, but we are not doing a one-time activity. We want to talk with the right set of people who are committed and can work wholeheartedly for this cause; this is how we can accumulate funds.

“Now, we don’t do a lot of fundraising activities. That’s the surprising part, even now, scaling for us is not an issue. Companies are asking us to give them a list of schools”.

The story is authored by Nimisha Jaiswal and Your Philanthropy Story Team.