Westminster working for literacy in India

Published: Wednesday, March 17 2010 12:00 a.m. MDT

Betty Fingl, left, and Puran Saeed look at a skirt during a fundraiser for Wai, India, at Westminster College on Tuesday.

Michael Brandy, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY – Two hundred dollars could buy quite a few scarves or saris from India, as well as a pair or two of traditional curly-toed leather shoes, but on his first trip there, Westminster student Robin Hill instead gave his souvenir money to homeless children on the streets.

"It wasn't until later that I realized that giving them handouts like that wasn't really giving them what they need," he said. The 22-year-old economics student helped organize a project to provide much-needed opportunities for literacy in remote areas of one of the world's poorest nations, particularly in the village of Wai, India.

"Wai is an incredible place," Hill said. "The people there want to learn; they have so many great ideas, but they just don't have the resources."

Multiple small towns make up the village of Wai, its largest with about 40,000 people, almost all of them very poor, said Westminster College President Michael Bassis, who has also visited the country. He said on Tuesday that education is one of the greatest needs for the people of Wai, particularly the women, who are often only educated through the first few grades.

"Every woman, no matter how poor, is immaculately dressed in their saris. There is such a great sense of pride amidst the poverty, and they are so humble and grateful for even the smallest gifts," Bassis said Tuesday during a fundraising event. Building a library, providing a collection of appropriate books and training for librarians, he said, would have a "lasting impact" on the village.

The project is anticipated to cost up to $70,000, and so far, students and faculty at Westminster have been able to raise about a quarter of that, hosting events where students contribute or buy goods to donate to the cause. More than a dozen students will be traveling to Wai in May to help train librarians to best be able to use the resources that the completed project will provide.

"We hope to see, one by one, child by child, books in their hands and the world changing," said Jan Saeed, Westminster's director of spiritual life. They've teamed up with the Room to Read Foundation, which has established more than 4,000 libraries and 400 schools in the world, including 252 reading rooms for children in Delhi.

In addition to providing a lasting resource for literacy in Wai, Bassis said the proposed library project will produce global learning opportunities for students and faculty, both in Utah and in Wai, as well as help Westminster develop a long-term relationship with the village to enable an open exchange of ideas and people.

A local scientist and businessman, Ashok Joshi, was born near Wai and lived there as a child. He has founded at least one school there and is very excited about the library project.

"The success of a project depends heavily upon the passion of those involved," he said. "This is going to be successful because people are so passionate there."

Visit www.westminstercollege.edu/wai for more information.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com

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