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Student vows to bring desks to India school

  • Story Highlights
  • Student team is met by apprehensive locals near school
  • School principal asks team to bring them desks from the United States
  • Team hopes to spread awareness about waterborne illnesses
  • Project will need united support of townspeople to be success, student says
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By Kimberly Lewkowitz
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: CNNU is following two student teams from the University of Southern California as they work to improve the quality of life in India. One team, Water Treatment, is working to improve the local water quality. Kimberly Lewkowitz is part of that team. The following is a column she wrote for CNNU about her experience. Read about the teams on the CNNU homepage. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of CNN or its affiliates.

A visit to a local school inspired one student to make it her mission to get desks to the students in need.

(CNN) -- Our target population for this project lives in a colony far from the center of Hubli.

The government originally developed it as a habitation for the poor, and since that time it has been enormously neglected.

The streets, the homes, and other areas of the town are completely dilapidated -- It is the by far the worst slum area we have seen yet.

We took the bus partway to the colony, and had to take a rickshaw to approach the desolate area. The four of us (3 USC team members + an Indian friend/translator) climbed out the rickshaw and looked around, only to be welcomed by intense stares.

By the demeanor of the townspeople people, I immediately felt apprehensive. As the rickshaw skirted away, the four of us were a bit out of sorts. We stood in the mud as outsiders, in bewilderment of not knowing what direction to head next.

In a hurry to move along and away from the townspeople, I caught the attention of a curious little girl and asked her to point out the direction of the school. We headed down the street using her directions, and walked past adults who seemed unapproachable.

I whispered to the translator to explain our purpose in being there to anyone who asked ... and as soon as possible.

We needed to show the suspicious bystanders that we came in peace and were there to help them. Moments after the exchange between our translator and the group of young men, the men's faces relaxed. I stood in the back and breathed a sigh of relief.

One of the men uncrossed his arms and pointed in the direction of the school saying something loudly, in an effort to allow other bystanders to loosen up as well. From there walked down the muddy clay roads to locate the school of 580 students. On our way, watchful children followed us; many of them were pant-less running barefoot behind the group trying to keep up to see where we were going.

It was an experience in itself reaching the school, but once we arrived we were immediately embraced.

Handshakes and smiles came from the school's principal and secretary, who had seen us coming from a distance -- despite not knowing our purpose for visiting or why we had come to their school.

As we began speaking with them about our idea, they continually nodded in agreement. It is hard to tell whether they were keenly interested in our aspirations, or just happy for the attention their students would be receiving.

We then went on a tour of the small six-classroom school. Except for the 7th Standard (or "7th grade"), all children sat on mats on the floor. The school was much worse off than the one I had toured earlier in the week.

After our tour and the discussion of our project, I asked the principal if he had any further personal desires for his school. He answered me in his broken English, "Please, please bring us desks."

I felt both an ache of sadness and of purpose, when a small voice inside, said to me "done!" I was surprisingly confident that I could provide him with something that the school desperately needed, although unrelated to our project.

Desks are something that are easy to come by in the U.S. with a little fundraising, but sadly nearly impossible for a impoverished community such as this one to attain. I promised to help him in the once I arrive back in the U.S.

After the school visit, we were beaming, excited that our project would be underway much sooner than expected. And by time we reached the entry road again to find ourselves a rickshaw home, many of the once standoffish people were smiling and saying hello. I thought to myself, "Word must spread fast in this community!"

I also know this will only work to our advantage as we move ahead with our educational workshops in the primary school. The students will have a large impact in spreading the word within their homes and neighborhood. We hope that when we start distributing the water filters and raising awareness about waterborne diseases, parents will listen to their kids and the neighbors will talk.

It's the word-of mouth that will greatly help cultivate both the enthusiasm for our program and the acceptance of our water filtration system. We hope that within the initial months of implementing our project, the townspeople will become more and more accepting of our work and welcome us into their homes to conduct monthly surveys.

From this experience I learned that it is going to take strong initiative to get the program off the ground but also the united support of the townspeople to make the project a success.

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