Seventeen-year-old Ananya Saluja has a ritual: Every summer, she volunteers in the remotest villages of Leh, Ladakh, and during school days, she raises funds to provide libraries to underprivileged children of the region. So far, she has managed to raise around Rs 10 lakh for her cause!
Two years ago, Ananya Saluja was a 15-year-old studying in The Shri Ram School, Moulsari, worrying about her exams, studies and tuitions. Today, she is looking forward to spending her third consecutive summer amidst the mountains of Ladakh, teaching underprivileged children and has raised over Rs 10 lakh to build playgrounds and start libraries in Leh.
It all started two years ago when Ananya’s school introduced a community service module in its curriculum wherein the students had to teach underprivileged children.
The experience proved to be so enriching for Ananya that when the programme ended, she decided to pursue the cause on her own.
“During the time of the program, I really got close to my girls. The happiness on their faces after having understood a concept was worth anything in the world. I just knew that I didn’t want to stop at that. I came to know about 17,000 ft Foundation run by Sujata Sahu. She is a former teacher of our school and also the mother of one of my fellow students. So, after approaching them for volunteering opportunities, I decided to go to Ladakh,” says Ananya.
Now, visiting the remote villages in Leh and Ladakh has become a summer ritual for Ananya. In 2015, she visited villages Liktsey, Turtuk and Tialing, all in Leh district, to teach children. The summer of 2016 took her to Matho in Leh district, where she also helped set up a playground for children besides teaching. This summer, she will be travelling to Kargil to set up a library and conduct a workshop.
NGO 17,000 ft works towards improving lives of people residing in the remotest and most inaccessible villages in Ladakh. Situated in the Himalayan Mountains, the vast region of 65,000 sq. km remains isolated from the rest of the world due to difficult terrain and harsh winters.
Just like the region, people here too, are shielded from the influence of the world, feels Ananya.
“To us, a tablet is an everyday object. But to these children who rarely see a computer, tablet is a little magic screen working without any chord! It took some time to get comfortable with the children, since our cultures, environment andthe level of exposure to the outer world were completely different. But once we got past that initial unfamiliarity, we found a very special connect beyond all these differences. After returning, I realised that there was a strong bond between us that kept tugging at me,” says Ananya.
During the volunteering program, it was she who learnt more than she taught the children, feels Ananya. She learnt about the lives of people and the challenges they faced on a day-to-day basis.
The region has over 600 hamlets and 1,000 government schools, which have limited facilities and manpower. Visiting these schools left Ananya wanting to do something more than a once-in-a-year volunteering program. That’s when she decided to take to crowdfunding to help ‘her children.’
“I had seen the incredible work the NGO was doing and since I couldn’t give my time more than a few weeks every year, I decided to help in other ways that I could.I decided to help them raise money to expand their reach beyond Leh district and set up libraries in the Kargil district of Ladakh. I appealed to people and fortunately, I have managed to raise funds for 17 libraries, which amounts to Rs. 9,35,000 so far. This is an ongoing effort and I hope to raise as much money as I can for my kids in Kashmir,” says Ananya.
Ever since her very first volunteering program, Ananya has penned down her experiences regularly on a blog as well as a Facebook page. Her journals are a delight to read and reflect the necessity as well as the authenticity of her cause.
Here’s an excerpt from her blog:
“Hello! My name is Ananya Saluja, and I’m your average 17-year old girl from New Delhi. I study in the 11th grade at. I volunteered during my last two summer vacations in Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, teaching children in the schools of remote villages through the 17000 ft Foundation.
Volunteering in Ladakh, staying in homestays, eating the local food, imbibing the local culture and customs, teaching and playing with the children was an absolutely amazing experience, but it also presented many challenges that I had not entirely anticipated.
Other than the immense joy and emotional learning the trip gave me, it also taught me how to use the resources available to me, how to make the most of the scarce materials and facilities available in Ladakh.
Spending two consecutive summers in Ladakh has not only taught me so much about the joy that doesn’t come from the things we have, but also how to use whatever we do have to the best of our abilities and find happiness and contentment in it. It was quite eye-opening to see how the Ladakhi people effortlessly achieve that which we strive and aspire for – leading a life in harmony with the environment.”