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Building Bridges to India

Riverdale students learn, teach lessons around the world
by: submitted photo Hope Charities staff members, at left and at rear, shared Indian culture with Riverdale students, including morning yoga classes, as well as accompanied them on excursions in the region.

In keeping with what has become a Riverdale High School tradition, 13 of the school's seniors traveled to India in November to complete service projects for Bridges to India, a student-led global organization based at the school.

Their efforts this past fall were similar to what other students did in 2007: They developed community service projects, raised money to implement them and traveled to Kerala, on India's southwest coast, in partnership with Hope Charities.

Hope Charities is a nonprofit organization run by former Riverdale parent Daisy Kuchinad. Its mission is to serve the needy and working poor of small villages in southern India by giving medical, psychosocial and financial help. Kuchinad started Hope Charities a decade ago and has provided medical services to more than 500 families, scholarships for education, skills training for women, a community library and English instruction, mainly at a clinic she established in Kerala.

'She and her husband planned to start the clinic when they retired,' explained student Kaitlyn Kohlenberg, who was on the trip in November. 'Now the clinic includes a sewing center so the women can earn money for doing sewing, ESL (English as a second or other language) and tutoring for children.'

Many of the Riverdale students considered the trip to be life-changing, and many had never before traveled to a country so far away from the United States.

'It's such a cultural experience,' Ben Yablon said. 'It's one thing to do fundraising (for a cause), but to go and see what you are doing is another.' He said visiting India and seeing the Hope Charities clinic in action made a big impact on students.

Amy Tindell noted one unusual experience from the trip: 'We were treated like celebrities,' she said. 'They asked us to sign autographs and hold their babies while they took pictures.'

Her father, Bob, was one of two parent chaperones on the trip. He works for Nike in Vietnam and met up with the group in India. Amy, who has lived in Vietnam, said India reminded her of that country.

During the first five days of the three-week journey, students enjoyed a tour of northern India. They then headed south. In addition to their own luggage, each student brought a suitcase packed with supplies for the Hope Charities clinic.

They were involved in a number of activities while at the clinic. The students helped to harvest seeds and plant them, painted, helped with sewing, worked in the classrooms and put on a talent show for local children.

'The biggest thing of all for me was to see how welcoming and how happy the people were for what they had,' Anna Steckel said. 'They don't have much, and they are still happy.'

She said her experience solidified her decision to pursue a career involving outreach and travel.

This was the second time teacher Laurie LePore accompanied students on the India trip. Next year, she plans to take students from her H2O class, which is focused on service-learning.

'Next year the students will get to see the fruits of their labors (of the group this year),' LePore said.

The trip costs about $3,000 per student, and each is responsible for helping raise funds.

To read the blog students kept while on the November trip, go to http://riverdaletoindia2011.wordpress.com. To view pictures, go to http://photobucket.com/albums/m507/bridgestoindia2011.

An informational meeting for current Riverdale sophomores and juniors interested in the next India trip, and their parents, will be held Feb. 12 at 4 p.m. at Riverdale.




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