Six journalists had front-row seats in a stone amphitheater under the stars at the beautiful Ananda Resort and Spa in the Himalayas. It was a warm night as we sat, entranced by an Indian dance performance.
The program may have been classical dance, but these were not traditional dancers. Outfitted in dazzling costumes, wearing equally dazzling smiles, they were children, some as young as four, from Ramana’s Garden, a school in nearby Rishikesh. All hail from the lowest economic rung in India. Some were victims of trafficking in Nepal. Others are orphans, or their parents are simply too poor to care for them. They twirled as light reflected from the mirrored beads on their colorful saris.
Ramana’s Garden was founded by Maggie O’Hara, a tall, striking, former actress who came to India 32 years ago and never left. “It didn’t make sense to me to see so many children suffering malnutrition,” says O’Hara, also known by her Indian name, Prabhavati Dwabha. “I knew it needed to change. The soil is fertile here,” she continues. “The first piece was food, then education.”
Out of 187 studying here, 64 (orphans) live in. They get three meals a day, a school uniform, fresh milk from two cows on property, eggs once a week from the chickens, and, for winter, a sweater, knitted by a local women’s collective. Their “science lab” is equipped with microscopes donated from a hospital in Washington DC.
Only 25 boys and girls are accepted each year, and hundreds apply. “If the children weren’t studying here, they wouldn’t have a chance to study anywhere,” says O’Hara. “Most of their parents are illiterate and register them with a thumbprint.” Even if they do get in, there is a two month trial period, “to make sure they have the capacity to learn,” she explains. “So many suffer from childhood diseases or malnutrition that can affect their abilities to study.” But if they do succeed, over the next 12 years, they go on to study math, reading, science, English and Sanskrit.
The school rests on a reclaimed river bed and huge stones still litter the property. Coiled wire and rusted metal plates attempt to blockade mischievous monkeys, who break tiles on the roof, causing recurrent leaks. The girls’ dorms were built from dirt-filled plastic bags. Walls are filled in with broken tile mosaics. They compost. The lights and hot water are solar-powered. And the school runs an organic cafe to generate income. Everything is grown there—pesticide-free. “If we don’t grow it, they don’t eat it,” says O’Hara.
Classrooms are neat, the students are bright and lively. But the need is great. “The power goes out four to five times per day,” says O’Hara, and they don’t have a generator. They need to fix the roof—those monkeys! The dance studio is in disrepair. But most important, O’Hara says, are the big dreams: “All of these kids deserve to go to college.” ramanasgarden.org