181b925715a114490f2ba81ce1715cc1-1I never thought I could run a single mile but I did. I never dreamt I would run a marathon, but I did!” says Sonal Agarwal, a first-time runner and Silicon Valley 2004 marathon finisher. Agarwal is one of more than 300 runners and walkers who credit Team Asha for their prime accomplishment amongst less than 1 percent of the world population who can boast of being marathoners.

“Team Asha offers a unique opportunity for someone like me to jump-start their life with a goal to meet new friends, get in shape, and make a difference in a child’s life,” adds Agarwal. “This is one of the premier endurance sports training programs in the United States and provides personalized coaching, motivation, and support for individuals with a life goal to run or walk an official marathon or half marathon.”

To put things in perspective, picture a nation with a quarter of its population that can neither read nor write; nor do they have the opportunities that education brings—opportunities that you and I take for granted. One quarter of India’s 400 million children do not have access to basic education. The future of our great country is stymied right at the cradle! Thankfully, the Indian government and various non-profit organizations are cognizant of this problem and are working to rectify it at the grassroots level. Asha for Education is one such non-profit that is focused on basic education as a fundamental requisite for herding socio-economic changes to India. Asha’s largest fundraiser is the Team Asha marathon program, which has been instrumental in changing the lives of hundreds of professionals in the Silicon Valley while pursuing its ultimate goal of educating children in India.

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THE FIRST RAYS OF HOPE

In 1991 a few students from University of California, Berkeley, got together to think of ways in which they could give back to India, the country of their origin. These young people shared the belief that education is a right and not a privilege, and an effective catalyst for social and economic change in India. Providing basic education to underprivileged children thus became the mission of the organization that they subsequently formed. The organization was aptly named Asha, which means “hope” in Hindi and other Indian languages. “This represents the hope that they knew the gift of knowledge and education would bring into the lives of these children,” says Netika Raval, president of Asha for Education.

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EMPOWERING CHILDREN

Asha’s focus on children’s education has galvanized a number of volunteers across the United States and around the globe. Today, there are over 66 Asha chapters worldwide: 45 in the United States alone, 14 in India, and 7 in Europe, Singapore, and Australia. Volunteers from each of the chapters take personal interest in researching and identifying education-related projects in India, mobilizing the necessary funds, and taking ownership for nurturing the projects right from inception to when it is fully functional. Asha has several avenues to raise funds for its worthy cause: Support-a-Child program, Work-an-Hour initiative, several one-off events, and the Team Asha marathon program.

Over the last 15 years, Asha has disbursed over $4 million in funding to support more than 385 successful initiatives.

181b925715a114490f2ba81ce1715cc1-2The National Association of the Blind (NAB) is one such immensely successful Asha initiative. NAB works with visually impaired children and provides them with basic amenities and quality education, thus empowering them to live their lives with a sense of pride and independence. The curriculum includes reading, writing, arithmetic, science, and geography. It provides vocational training in telephone operation, typing, computers, carpentry, and weaving. NAB also helps children who cannot afford to live on their own with housing, and covers costs for their regular health checkups, medical assessments, visual care, and medicines. “Integrating the children into the community and assisting them in finding suitable employment is a major focus for us,” says Niyati Kadakia, Asha’s NAB coordinator. These children also represent India in the International Blind Cricket Team and played at Sharjah in 2004. Many have brought back laurels in state chess championships as well as dramatics and dance. Other activities help the visually impaired children overcome the fear of socializing and working with sighted people and ultimately, surmount the obstacles posed by their disability.

Thanks to the regular contributions and support from many of the generous Asha donors, the NAB children excel in all academic and social aspects of life. Some of these kids have even forged ahead pursuing higher education and graduating with bachelor’s and master’s degrees. NAB is extremely proud of its two children who are currently practicing law!

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RUN, SO THEY CAN READ

The marathon program provides the necessary coaching and support system to help both beginning and experienced runners achieve their athletic goals.

“One does not have to be an accomplished athlete, or at peak fitness level to join the team. In fact, over 80 percent of Team Asha runners are new to running or any form of endurance sport,” says Kashyap Sarma, proud finisher of the 2004 Maui marathon. “What makes this program even more unique is that our professional coaches are highly accomplished runners and yet choose to volunteer their coaching time and expertise,” he adds.

Among the coaches, Tony Fong is well known in the endurance runner circles in the United States, and Rajeev Patel has more than 14 years of running and coaching under his belt. The coaches guide Team Asha participants through a comprehensive four-to-six-month training schedule individually tailored to suit their athletic abilities. The training includes weekday and weekend runs, stretching clinics, and strength training workshops. In addition, distinguished alumni return as mentors and work with runners on a one-on-one basis to help them achieve their training goals and fundraising targets.

“We could never do it if the runners and walkers did not believe in themselves,” says Patel. “The athletes have wings on their feet and fiery determination in their hearts.”

Challenging as it may seem, over 300 women and men have successfully trained, participated, and completed various marathons and half marathons as part of Team Asha.

In return for the training Team Asha provides, each runner or walker is committed to raising $2,620 for Asha projects—$100 for every marathon mile. In the five years since its inception the marathon program has grown from just 20 runners in 2000 to over 100 runners in 2004. The 300 runners and walkers have collectively raised over $830,000 for Asha projects over the past five years.

“The journey from zero to 26.2 miles builds strength of character and physical endurance. The painful thought of an uneducated child on the streets propels us along each step that we take towards that finish line,” says Anthony Vendhan a four-time Asha marathon veteran.

Most people have never run a marathon before but many dream of the glory of crossing that finish line. Team Asha’s marathon program provides a win-win opportunity to achieve personal goals while giving back to society.

Ramya Venkatraman has been running with Team Asha since 2002.

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INTERESTED IN PARTICIPATING?

Come to the kick-off event for Asha’s Marathon Training Program at India Community Center (ICC), Milpitas, on March 19, at 4 p.m. Training begins March 26. Team Asha will participate in official half marathons in Napa Valley (July 17) and San Francisco (July 31), and marathons in Maui (Sep. 18), Chicago (Oct. 9), San Francisco (Oct. 23), and Silicon Valley (Oct. 30).

Team Asha: www.teamasha.org

Asha for Education projects: www.ashanet.org

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