Once upon a time, in a little village in rural India, there was an elementary school. It was a modest school, but one that was attended by eager and willing students. They that was trudged in from remote homes to a school that had no benches or fans for them, or even drinking water. Some of the alumni from similarly ill-equipped rural schools however, had an idea. They decided to contribute funds and improve the conditions for the young students …
That was how Team for Educational Activities in Motherland (TEAM) started. “We all (TEAM founders) come from a village background,” says Karthikeyan Easwaramoorthy, chairman of TEAM. “We are quick to criticize everything, but we should do something to improve the conditions.”
Easwaramoorthy and his friends could have easily decided to contribute the money to any non-profit organization, but instead they started their own.
“TEAM offers a great opportunity to do something on your own,” he says. “You know where the money goes. The unique concept of TEAM is that you, as a member, are responsible for a school.”
“We chose to support elementary schools because high schools generally find people to support them and give them funds,” he explains. “We started by contributing to make it (the school) a better environment, hoping that it would encourage the children to study better.”
He explains how it works. TEAM members contribute $10 each month. Once in about four months, three or four members are selected by lottery to be project coordinators and execute projects of their choosing. Each project receives a check of $500 from TEAM. The member usually chooses a school with the help of parents or siblings who live in India.
The project is implemented by a parent of the TEAM member, who meets with the principal to assess the needs of the school, and decides the scope of the project based on the budget allotted. After the project is completed, he or she takes videos or photos, and submits them along with the receipts.
Each project that is undertaken helps to swell TEAM’s membership ranks. Most coordinators approach their friends to enlist them as members and that is what Vimala Moorthy, one of the founding members, did. Eventually, all the founding members became coordinators and brought in 10 more friends each. Even those who did not become members gave a one-time contribution.
“Almost all of the 10 people I asked agreed to join,” says Moorthy. “I told them, you spend $10 a month for a haircut and that is what you need to contribute.”
From a modest beginning of 11 members, TEAM has grown to about 900 members with chapters in the Bay Area, Chicago, and in India.
“The decision to support elementary schools is a not a policy, but rather a guideline,” says Easwaramoorthy. “The member has the authority to select a high school to support, as some members have done.”
“TEAM believes that every member will make the right decision,” he adds. “We have executed projects in 225 schools.”
No mean achievement, for an organization that started casually in 2000. But the concept struck a chord with members such as Abirami Jayaprakash, who joined four months after TEAM was founded.
“The TEAM opportunity of executing a project in one’s own hometown sounded feasible, believable,” she says.
“In villages, there is a lack of interest in sending children to school,” explains Jayaprakash. “If some basic amenities are there, if the environment is better, the children will be more relaxed and can concentrate on studies.”
She selected a school in South Velayuthampalayam, in Coimbatore District after consulting with her father. “We bought benches and cupboards,” she says. “The schoolchildren were really happy.”
Even the people executing the project are happy. She mentions one friend who chose to help a blind school. His brother executed the project and was asked to preside as a chief guest on Independence Day, which really touched him.
To prevent pilfering, most articles have the words “Donated by TEAM” or something to that effect stamped on them.
“There is a registry in the school,” says Jayaprakash. “We enter the items donated in the records, so that TEAM’s contribution is registered and the items remain with the school.”
She explains that the first priority of TEAM is basic education in villages, where they feel they have made some impact.
“Many of us are from Tamil Nadu, but the reason we concentrated on projects from Tamil Nadu was, concentration on one area would ensure more visibility in nearby towns,” Moorthy says. This strategy has proved to be successful. Members affirm that in the Erode District, where TEAM has concentrated its activities, people are aware and appreciative of TEAM’s contributions.
“Most members buy benches as part of their project,” Moorthy says. “But people have done different things—erect a compound wall to keep livestock from wandering in, install a water tank. The more remote the school, the less facilities it has.”
For her project, Moorthy consulted with her father, C.M. Moorthy who is from Erode town. They identified a school after consulting with the panchayat vice-president. He then talked to the principal of the school, who gave him a list of requirements, from which he selected what he was able to do.
“I am very happy about the project that I was able to complete,” says C.M. Moorthy, who contributed an additional Rs. 2,000-3,000 towards the project. He was able to buy tables, benches, a shelf, bureau, fan, and utensils.
He made several trips by car to the school, which was located about 20 miles away, and to negotiate with shopkeepers for supplies. On learning about the nature of the project, even the shopkeepers helped by discounting their prices.
“I can do it again as many times as required,” says C.M. Moorthy, insisting that the project was not an inconvenience.
Vimala Moorthy mentions that those in charge of the schools lament that they don’t get sufficient funding from the government; the money that is allocated doesn’t reach them completely. If it did, they would not have any problem. To prevent misuse, TEAM members always contribute in kind, not cash.
Moorthy recollects how the organization has evolved over the years. By 2001 there were around 200 members, which warranted the appointment of a treasurer and a chairman. In 2002, they created the TEAM website (www.indiateam.org). One member paid for it and continues to do so.
“In our early days, discussion about what to do and how to go about it was by email and it was quite an informal affair,” remembers Moorthy. “We would meet in the clubhouse of one of the friends’ residential complex. We would have a hundial outside the room for people to contribute money and that was what we used for expenses.
“Earlier, it was very difficult to get things done; now it is a big organization and things move much more smoothly,” she says. “My only concern is how long we can continue in this manner, where every member is responsible.”
Sudhakar Sukumar, who is the current president of the Bay Area chapter, has the answer. He explains that TEAM has now grown big enough to merit a formal organizational structure. They have a chairman, president of each chapter who is responsible for the overall growth and promotional activities, and a secretary in charge of maintaining existing activities. There is also a treasurer and a financial coordinator for each batch. A board of about 10 directors is selected randomly from interested members. However, these office bearers are rotated every two years to tap the large pool of leadership talent within the organization and so that no one person dominates.
“TEAM is faceless,” says Sukumar. “Even the name of our organization was selected so that there is no hint of caste, religion, or language. This ensures that all members can identify with it.”
Members also take ownership by volunteering for various groups; Sukumar adds, such as TEAM Soft, the group that maintains the software. TEAM Promotion, the group in charge of promotional activities, is organizing a walk in Mountain View on Aug. 28 to raise awareness about TEAM. Another group of volunteers arranges food for the meetings, and entertainment like song and dance programs. This involvement of members at all levels has helped TEAM retain its informal and friendly atmosphere even as the organization grows in numbers.
Sukumar undertook a project in November 2001, soon after he was initiated into TEAM by his roommate. Locating a rural school posed a problem because his parents were not living in a rural area at that time. They finally selected the Elementary Panchayat School in Erode District with the help of relatives who live in the village.
Not having family where they wish to execute a project is sometimes a problem for TEAM members. That’s where the India chapter of TEAM lends a hand.
Arun Kumar Athiappan, director of the India chapter, coordinates activities between India and the United States. He shared by email his experience with execution of two projects in the Namakkal District of Tamil Nadu.
“Before doing those projects, I was happy to be part of TEAM and doing something good for the primary schools,” he writes. “But only after doing the projects and talking to the kids in the school, I realized how much of a difference our contributions have made.”
“In one school, we had donated some benches and desks. I visited that school and asked one of the students how she felt about having new benches and desks,” he recounts. “She replied that prior to having the benches and desks, the wounds she used to get while playing took a long time to heal as they abraded with the rough floor when they sat down for their classes. Now, they heal very fast. I had never thought of anything like this. When it came from a young kid studying in the third standard, it really moved me.”
The India chapter of TEAM consists mostly of members who have moved back from the United States to India. They still want to contribute to TEAM though the donations come mainly from the United States. Indian members are in the valuable position of being able to actually oversee and implement projects in India.
There are also plans to adopt a school, which would mean more than a one-time contribution. The India Chapter has started the first adoption project at an elementary school in the Periyapudhur village of Salem District in Tamil Nadu. This has been made possible by the donations of two members who found it difficult to execute their project, explains Athiappan.
They expect more members to pitch in to meet all the needs of this school, such as a ceiling, electricity, lights and fans, benches and desks to seat 200 students, tables and chairs for the teachers, notebooks, uniforms, and even a computer.
They have not faced any problems so far, either from the local residents or school authorities. Athiappan writes that people have been strongly supportive of all of TEAM’s efforts.
“It is a wondrous feeling to know what you have contributed has really made a difference to the small kids at those schools,” writes Athiappan. “The contributions were minimal and it gave me an immense satisfaction of doing something by myself. More than the monetary contribution, the personal involvement of the members is what I think is the driving factor of TEAM and the greatest motivation to join TEAM.”
“Personal involvement is the reason for TEAM’s success,” reiterates Easwaramoorthy.
He adds that those responsible for implementing a project, such as parents or relatives also take an active interest. This creates local awareness and leads to increased donations.
“We have delivered a lot of projects; we have not sought popularity,” says Easwaramoorthy. “Once members complete their project, they bring all their friends.”
Currently, his aim is to build a community center where villagers can access information about agriculture, students can get admission forms, and there is a library—all to increase education and awareness amongst rural folk. The plans are still in the formative stage.
“What we do matters,” says Easwaramoorthy. “Doing is the solution to any problem. My vision is to build TEAM all over the world.”
Priya Gopalakrishnan is a graduate student of mass communication and journalism at San Jose State University.
Team Walk for Education. 5K and 10K. Shoreline Park, 3070 N. Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View. Saturday, August 28, 8:00-10:00 a.m. www.indiateam.org.