It’s in trying times that one realises the value of life and learns lessons that thrive in you for a lifetime. Bakhtawar Singh and Harbinder Singh, are a couple who have not just lived this but converted their tragedy to a ray of hope for others. Covering a story like theirs, brings to light the amazing humans of Pune who are silently working towards the betterment of the city.
A native of Punjab who made Pune his home for business purposes was met by an unlikely fate. The recession of early 90’s hit Bakhtawar Singh’s pharmaceutical business leaving him and his family out on the streets. Struggling to make ends meet, the couple had to take their two small children out of school, the younger daughter was shifted to a school providing free education for girls. “When we lost everything, that’s when we came to know what it feels like to be poor, hungry, rejected, despised and alone. Our thought process underwent a change and we became much more compassionate and understanding towards the underprivileged,” says Bakhtawar Singh.
Trying to reclaim their lost lifestyle, the couple began a dabba service. With this, they also hoped to afford their son’s education but in vain. On a friend’s recommendation, they admitted their son to a missionary run school, by the name Immanuel Mission School. Unable to pay the fee of rupees 500, the couple was asked to extend their dabba service here as well. Slowly but steadily, windows of opportunities opened for the family, as Bakhtawar Singh was offered to teach Indian cooking in the school. Observing his keen interest and inputs for the betterment of the school, he was made the Secretary of Board. “After struggling for 11 years, we decided we would serve the poor. So when the school was to shift to Lonavla, I felt that a good initiative like this should not stop. I made a presentation that I presented at the farewell and a woman came forward to help; next week onwards we resumed school,” smiles Singh.
Firmly believing in “education is empowerment,” Bakhtawar Singh renamed it as- Care Foundation Emmanuel Public School, it opened its doors to all the children who were below the poverty line and could not afford education in an English Medium school. Beginning with just two students, Bakhtawar Singh altered the syllabus to follow the SSE board. The family who had been through tough times would give back much more than they were deprived of. Harbinder Singh would cook for all the students, as they would sit down together and eat as a family.
Now, 10 years later, the playground is filled with children playing all sorts of sports, at the far end is the choir singing Christmas carols in accordance with the decorations adorning every classroom made by all the students. While the older students are seen distributing cake to the younger ones, Harbinder Singh who now cooks for 350 students, doles out large portions of nutritious food to every kid. It seems like Christmas has come in early, with the cheer and spirit the children are filled with. But, Poonam Singh the administrative head of the school (daughter of the couple) tells us, “this is the way it is everyday. Usually children are seen crying while being dropped to school, here the kids cry when their parents come to take them back.”
The school which educates children coming from sometimes violent and disturbing environments, describes itself as a lifestyle learning centre giving inputs on moral values, social conduct, value and sanctity of relationships, health and hygiene. Right from FIFA certified coaches from Brazil to taekwondo and dance classes, from counselling to regular dental check-ups, every need is taken care of to ensure the student is empowered and more importantly a good human being. With most of the faculty being formally trained, the school is visited by volunteers from all over the world who contribute immensely in their holistic development. “The criteria required for a teacher at Immanuel school, is first passion to service. A teacher is a parent figure and a friend. There are many children who just need to be heard and the teacher should provide love and affection which will make them open up,” says Singh.
Despite being awarded seven national awards, including the most recent addition which is the APJ Abdul Kalam Award for Excellence for his service towards the nation, Bahktawar Singh regards his students as his trophy. He proudly reminisces, “A while back our school choir took part in a singing festival and sang in German, Japanese, Korean, Hindi and English. Parents from some high profile English medium schools were pleasantly shocked to see kids belonging to a certain background sing this well.” With their first batch of students reaching the tenth standard, the school yet does not have a fixed funding agency but always manages to receive help. It has already started a second school in Lohegaon and according to Bakhtawar Singh, “we have finalised more pockets in the city where such schools can be opened.”
Note: If you would like to volunteer or visit Care Foundation Emmanuel Public School, here is the address: Emmanuel Public School, Chandan Gardens, next to Clover Highlands, off NIBM Road, Kondwa, Pune.
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