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Staging a sit-in to demand a future

India, September 19, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Leah Hazard/Mercy Corps  </span>
    One of the hotly-contested — and much-needed — youth coaching centers in India's Assam state. Photo: Leah Hazard/Mercy Corps

Last May, about 40 teens showed up at Mercy Corps' office in Assam to stage a sit-in. They had hired a truck to take them from their homes surrounding the Maud Tea Estate to Mercy Corps' Assam office...not an easy drive.

The Assam office had just chosen to shut down its six coaching centers for youth due to funding cuts. The money used for the centers was reallocated to scholarships for the students who had already completed the coaching, but the students weren't having it.

Rosy Choudhury, Director of Programs for Mercy Corps' East and North East India Programs, laughed as she recalled the situation. "They said 'we're not leaving this office until you open back up the centers!'"

You see, about half of these kids don't have anyone at home who can help them with their studies. Many of their parents are illiterate. The children help with the parents with purchasing items at the market — or signing forms at the bank. But despite the challenges, these kids have big dreams of a future beyond the tea estates.

According to Mercy Corps' David Ekka, who manages the youth coaching program, the schools in Assam have a 1:200 teacher-to-student ratio. Grade one classes average about 70 students, and they just grow from there. One grade 9 student said his classes at school have 131 students.

It's hard for kids to get the help they need in order to pass grade 10. In response to the tough educational situation, Mercy Corps and TAZO Tea's CHAI Program implemented the coaching program where students would come get special help on certain subjects from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., five days a week — before heading off to school.

Today only one center is operational, but it's clear what a difference it's making. All you need to see is the hands of the 9th graders pledging to pass grade 10 with little or no support at home — or the class full of of grade 10 students professing their intentions to graduate school and give back to their communities.

Meet the future doctors, engineers, policemen, teachers — and one social worker — of Assam.