How one man's existential dread brought education to 700 slum children

5th Sep 2014
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Buriokhop is a village in West Sikkim. Nestled in mountains of the region, a small English academy, Sikkim Himalayan Academy, is the only source of education for many children living in the mountainous hinterlands of Western Sikkim, untouched by technology, the imposition of monoculture and urban decadency.


Sikkim Himalayan Academy

The people in these regions thrive in the idyllic environment, in spite of poor healthcare facilities. The village is an anachronism for someone raised in a technologically advanced urban centre. Buriokhop, however, can hardly provide for all the children who live in the backwoods of civilisation, yet there is a need to create schools that fit into the cultures of these remote regions. This was James Suresh Ambat’s realisation when he visited Sikkim this year.

Born the oldest of six sons, Ambat grew up in one of the remotest parts of India. His familiarity with the challenges of this kind of life comes from personal experience. Ambat remembers the barefoot journey from home to school, and the relish of living a simple life. He remembers most the happiness that came with “living with nothing”.

College took him from an agrestic life to one that was multi-cultural, chaotic, diverse and rich.

‘Where ever I looked, there were people talking about more money and how to make it big, and I decided to join that crowd.’

Ambat’s life re-traced the familiar course of conformity: job, money and family.

An accident, however, was to create a deep sense of existential dread in Ambat – the same existential dread that jolts so many of us out of our ennui, and motivates us to do something.

‘What if I had died? What had I done with my life?’

Ambat tried to find the answers in many places. He met those with familiar experiences, and eventually realised that a life lived for the betterment of others was the only kind of life that could give him a sense of contentment and joy.

‘That journey started about 30 years ago, and I haven’t looked back.’

To Ambat, one life changed is more than a blimp in the history of society, and it’s this mission that completes his life.

‘When I know for sure that I am not going to take anything away from this world when I pass away, why waste my time in pursuit of material gains?’

In 2004, Ambat started Building Blocks in Ulsoor, Bangalore with this philosophy in mind. With one teacher and 4-5 students, Building Blocks was ironically devoid of furniture or supplies. All the children came from a local slum, and the school was run on small donations by people to help provide food, stationery and books for the children.


Building Blocks

Today, Building Blocks has 7 schools, a staff of 79 teachers and helps 700 children in the pursuit of education. The education is free of cost for these slum children who’re provided with the best educational tools to learn. As a charitable organisation, Building Blocks has the benefit of receiving educators from around the world who conduct workshops and seminars to help teachers deliver quality education to slum children.

‘At present the school caters to children between the ages of 3 to 6. After a couple of years of schooling we attempt to get the children into good English medium schools with the help of our sponsors.

‘Our dream is to have our own big school where we can make sure that the children are getting the best education, all free of cost, all the way to college level.’


Building Blocks 2

Ambat believes that underprivileged children deserve free education, meals and medical care. But, there are weaknesses he hopes to strengthen in the future.‘Sending children to similarly high standard schools after the 2 years they spend with us has been a problem. Sometimes, due to economic conditions, the parents have to send the children to ordinary Kannada-medium government schools. This is really a waste considering the fact that they have had fantastic English medium schooling for the first 2 years of their lives.’

Yet, he’s confident that the new RTE (Right to Education) scheme will help his students enrol into better schools.

For now, Building Blocks hopes to reach as many slums, and eventually reach remote areas of the country to provide education to those who need it most.

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