The Anganwadi centres operated by the state government aimed to provide adequate food and quality education for children under six years of age but often they lack toilets, have no drinking water facilities and wear leaky roofs, making conditions unbearable for children to access education.
The lack of basic facilities shocked Maria Kasselmann, a former primary teacher from Germany, who visited India. “I was a primary teacher in Holland and later became a photographer, travelling a lot and exploring different parts of the world. However, a hip issue in the mid-2000s put a brake on my travels and forced me to undergo surgery. By then, I was settled in Germany and could not walk well because of my health condition. I happened to find a yoga teacher there, who guided me with techniques to improve my health condition,” she tells The Better India.
Maria says her guide suggested visiting India for treatment. So in 2008, she flew down to the southern city of Kovalam in Kerala. While passing through the town, she came across an Anganwadi at Thrissur.
She stepped inside only to find a leaky roof, broken benches and withered paint on the walls. “The children had no access to clean drinking water or hygienic toilets. Also, there were no toys, stationery, or ceiling fans for ventilation or electricity. Their state worried me, and I decided to do something about it,” she says.
With three days remaining before she returned to Germany, Maria bought some stationery, uniforms, books, toys and other equipment for the children.
“But I returned home feeling that I wanted to contribute more to better the lives of these children. I shared the experience with my partner and expressed that I would like to raise funds and renovate the school for the children,” she says.
Maria then started a donation campaign in Germany, in 2008, seeking financial help from the residents. All the funds collected through her initiative helped the school transform into an ideal institute equipped with the facilities.
“The school was repaired, painted, received new benches, and the students acquired study material. Soon, I learned about three other schools in the area which also needed help. I found out that the children walked miles to attend the school and thought that renewing the building could be the least I could do,” she says.
She then raised more funds for the same. “A small initiative turned into a full-fledged campaign, and I set up Positive Power for Children eV, an NGO that works towards the cause of renovating dilapidated government schools,” she says.
So far, her initiative has helped transform 22 government schools. “On an average, about 40 students learn in each school. So at any given time, about 800 students benefit from the facilities. Over the years, many more have accessed the improved infrastructure from these schools,” she says.
Maria says she prefers assisting government schools that need help in a true sense. “They are not privileged like other private schools.”
Her efforts have got recognition from government machinery, who have taken cognisance and acted to improve the conditions of the schools. “Initially, it was difficult to coordinate with the government officials as it took time to build a rapport with them. Once they felt confident about my efforts, the officials supported me. Today, they disperse some funds to paint the schools or provide other equipment upon the request of teachers,” she says.
Sindhu, a teacher at the Adimalathura Anganwadi in Thiruvananthapuram, says, “I have been working in this school for the past five years, and its condition was poor. The government provided Rs 1,000 for renting a place for the school, but we could not find a place for less than Rs 2,500. So I paid the remaining Rs 1,500 from my salary to keep the school going.”
She knew about Maria’s initiative of renovating the school and says, “But then the NGO did not have funds, and we were looking for a space to construct a school. In 2021, a person donated 6 cents of land for construction and Maria stepped in. Thanks to her, she helped build a permanent structure which took a year. She also provided the children with benches, uniforms and study material when we moved in April 2022. The newer place is much more comfortable for students to access education. The strength of the students has increased from about 15 children to over 30 because of better school infrastructure.”
Maria claims to have constructed eight such schools through donations. “These schools have a playground, which is crucial as many educational institutes lack one,” she says, adding, “The main challenge is the shortage of funds. I have to prioritise where to spend the money. At times it becomes a difficult decision to make.”
Citing an example, she adds, “On one occasion, teachers from one of these government schools asked for stationery, uniforms or painting their school walls. But on the other hand, two schools had lost their roof due to the cyclone and needed urgent attention. Of course, the school without a roof gets the priority.”
Besides, she invests in training children in self-defence classes. “I provide training to the girls aged between 15-17 years through a coach during school hours at Thiruvananthapuram. And even though the initiative to develop confidence among children, especially girls, has paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic and shortage of funds, I aim to revive the same,” she says.
Edited by Yoshita Rao