The Rhema Project is committed to highlighting others that are making a difference in bringing value and opportunity to the Indian girl child. Here is Crystle’s story.
India’s one-woman charity
CHAMIYARI, INDIA—Not long ago, the thought of graduating from school must have seemed like an impossible dream for Monica, a soft-spoken 12-year-old with emerald eyes, a heart-melting smile, and pigtails secured with scraps of ribbon.
Her father sells juice at a roadside stand in this town, only kilometres from the Pakistan border, never making more than a few dollars a day.
Monica’s mother abandoned the family three years ago, leaving her husband to raise their four daughters.
Monica’s father can barely afford to buy rice, flour or lentils, let alone pay the fifth grader’s school fees, which total about $140 a year.
Enter Crystle Mazurek, a Canadian high school teacher with an easygoing smile, aubergine highlights and a soft spot for India’s needy children.
A 49-year-old mother of three who lives a block from the St. Lawrence River in Brockville, Ont., Mazurek donated to well-known charities for years. But she became increasingly concerned, she said, that her contributions were being used to put aid officials up “in five-star hotels.”
So in 2001 Mazurek started her own charity, one she hoped would make a difference in a handful of derelict villages in Punjab, an Indian state where she spent four years as a child. Despite the state’s robust agricultural sector, social issues such as female infanticide, honour killings and even access to basic education remain grave problems.
Nine years after making her first donations here, Mazurek’s India Village Poverty Relief Fund has made impressive strides.
She has brought in more than $100,000 — $30,000 of which was raised from Canadian donors this year alone — to help pay for the education of primary, elementary and college-aged students, and to buy new tools such as sewing machines and welding equipment for young, skilled and poor apprentices.
“People are so giving,” she said. “My husband was out for dinner the other night and was talking about what I’m trying to do here and the couple he was with wrote a cheque for $500 for the charity, just like that.”
Mazurek is sponsoring more than 200 students this year alone at 32 schools in Punjab. She says she emphasizes helping girls and young women.
Monica is just one of those girls. Mazurek’s charity contributes $80 a year toward her fees for St. Mary’s Convent School in Chamiyari; the school covers the remainder.
There are other success stories. A former beneficiary, now 27, works as a computer programmer in Dubai. Another is close to completing nursing school. “Her education will give her a good income and really enhance her marriage prospects,” Mazurek said.
But Mazurek’s story also illustrates how complex the aid world can be, and how simply throwing money at the world’s poorest without understanding local customs usually fails to affect long-term change.
During one of her first trips here, she distributed boxes of toothpaste and toothbrushes after watching locals scrub their teeth with branches from a neem tree. When she returned a year later, people were still using the same brushes, now blackened and frayed. The toothpaste had run out months earlier.
“It was a reminder that you can’t impose a Western mindset when you come here,” she said. “I later learned that neem branches actually have some antibacterial properties. I was doing more harm than good, and it was a lesson that you really have to listen to what people say they need and try to accommodate that.”
In another case, she gave money to a family to build a latrine. Diseases like polio spread through contact with human waste and Mazurek hoped word about the benefits of improved hygiene would spread through the village. But on a subsequent trip, Mazurek saw that the new latrine simply emptied into an open sewer outside the family’s home.
She also saw some of her money waylaid during her early days as a philanthropist. “I gave some money to a young woman to get false teeth because hers were so bad, and her brother told her he’d commit suicide if she didn’t give the money to him,” Mazurek said.
That prompted her to stop giving cash directly to families and instead distribute it through schools and churches.
There have also been hurdles involved in bringing money into India.
In past years, Mazurek’s local church in Brockville held her collected donations in its bank account and sent the money via wire transfer to the Catholic Archdiocese in Jallandhar, a large city in Punjab. But in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Canada has become more hawkish about overseas fundraising, prompting her church to drop out.
A few months ago, she won approval from the Canada Revenue Agency to distribute tax receipts as a registered charity. “My bookkeeping is excellent, but I’m still not looking forward to the first time I get audited,” said Mazurek, who is a one-woman show.
She has no staff, draws no salary from the charity and looks after her own fundraising through public speaking engagements in Ontario.
Mazurek made her first trip to India as a 2-year-old when her mother heard there was a need for English teachers, packed their belongings and boarded a freighter to set out across the Atlantic. Once they landed in Bombay, the city now known as Mumbai, they made their way north to a small village outside Amritsar, a city in Punjab that’s home to the Golden Temple, a pilgrimage site for Sikhs around the world.
Mazurek lived here with her parents for four years before they returned to Canada. It was long enough, she said, to become hooked on life’s simple pleasures: sweet chai masala, a steaming hot whole-wheat chapati, and meetha chawal, a popular local dish with rice, sugar, coconut and raisins.
“A few years ago, my mother called me over to her house to say she was giving me my inheritance,” Mazurek said. “When I got there, we sat down and she explained it was this village in Punjab. She had spent her life trying to make a difference there and she was expecting me to carry it on. That’s how this all started.”
Not everyone in Punjab needs financial help, of course.The expansive state of loamy farmland that runs along India’s border with Pakistan has long been the country’s breadbasket. Landowners here, with fields of wheat, maize and rice, are among India’s richest residents. But the labourers who toil in these fields are among its poorest.
Mazurek says she’s aiming to help the disadvantaged children of these labourers, who typically earn about $1 to $2 a day.
On a recent sunny afternoon, Mazurek walked into a classroom at St. Mary’s Convent School. Several nuns dressed in navy blue and white habits greeted Mazurek and handed over a sheet with the names of the 12 students she sponsored. There were six boys and six girls whose marks ranged from 88 per cent to 71 per cent. “Generally, the marking is harder here,” she said, running her finger over the sheet. “A ‘C’ here is like a ‘B’ in Canada.”
Aid work in this sprawling country is an increasingly polarizing issue.
India, of course, has been proclaimed a world power by no less than U.S. President Barack Obama. Its middle class is surging and its wealthy class has more money than ever. Recently, an Indian billionaire made headlines when he built a 27-storey, billion-dollar home in Mumbai, complete with a six-level garage, three helicopter pads and a grand ballroom.
India’s progress leaves some aid workers wondering whether the country still needs foreign money at all.
“Isn’t there enough money here for India to feed its own?” asked a senior United Nations official based in New Delhi. “The economy here is now twice the size of my own country.”
Motoring over potholed roads to her next appointment, driving past fields of workers collecting chaff into golden piles high in the air, Mazurek and Father Robi mulled over the question.
“If a parent has a child but doesn’t feed it, do you as a neighbour stop looking after the child?” Robi asked. “It’s a question we are asking, too: why Indians don’t do more to help others here? But international society still has a responsibility to do what it can.”
For the rest of the afternoon, Mazurek met more of her other aid recipients.
One 25-year-old tailor, married with four children, used the 3,000 rupee sewing machine Mazurek gave him four years ago to start a business. He now has an unpaid apprentice and has purchased a second machine for his home so he can work late into the evening.
“He’d like another one that can do zigzag stitching,” Father Robi said, translating for him.
Another student, 20-year-old Priyanka, was learning computer programming at a local community college thanks to Mazurek’s contributions.
But meetings the next morning offered an insight into some of Mazurek’s tough choices.
Fifteen-year-old Nancy, one of six students Mazurek sponsors at a Catholic school in Chamiyari, has a 60 per cent average. She’s barely passing school.
“My father is suffering from black lungs,” Nancy said, explaining her struggles. “I find . . . math and science very difficult but I will recommit myself from this day forward.”
Nancy was obviously worried that Mazurek would pull her financial support, a move that would drive her either onto the streets at worst or, if there’s room, into a public school. India’s public schools, particularly in small villages, are plagued by teacher absenteeism and have a checkered record when it comes to turning out employable graduates.
“I’m not sure what I’ll do with this,” Mazurek said softly, shaking her head. “I’m still learning as I go.”