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A wonderful tribute in India to Hannah Foster
THEY run around the playground, form orderly queues before classes, and pore over their exercise books.
It is all part of the daily timetable for these smiling children. But until recently they did not have a school to go to.
Many are now the first in their families to learn how to read and write thanks to a school set up in the name of murdered Southamp-ton teenager Hannah Foster.
The Hannah Memorial Academy in the Dhooteriah tea garden, 13 miles from Darjeeling, in the foothills of the Himalayas, gives some of India’s poorest children the chance of an education.
It is a lasting legacy to Hannah whose killer Maninder Pal Singh Kohli was this week jailed for a minimum of 24 years for her abduction, rape and murder.
Hannah’s parents Hilary and Trevor now plan to visit the school which was set up with reward money given to taxi driver Jason Lepcha who helped the police investigation into the Southampton teenager’s murder.
His information led to the arrest of Kohli in Kalimpong, Darjeel-ing in July 2004. Rather than spend the reward – equivalent to £4,569 – on himself, he decided to build an English school in memory of the 17-year-old.
He said: “I feel satisfied that the money has been used in a good cause. Many garden workers cannot afford to send their children to school.
“I decided to use the money and a plot of land owned by my grandfather to open a school that will help families who want to give their children a good education but cannot afford it.”
He said that at the school there were “now 122 Fosters” learning in Hannah’s name.
Today the school stands as a fitting tribute to Hannah who was described as an A-grade student and hoped to become a doctor.
Her parents would like to give the school a photograph of Hannah as a student at Cantell School and a copy of her headmaster’s academic prize certificate for the pupils to see.
The couple said they were “very grateful” and “very proud” that the school had been named after their eldest daughter.
“She had a huge appetite for learning – I’m sure that will rub off on all those bright-eyed eager children who will benefit from this school.”
The couple said that finding out that the school project was “ a genuine philanthropic gesture” from Jason had gone “a long way” to restoring their faith in human nature.
Hilary said: “The whole concept of the school is really lovely.
“I know that it is something that Hannah would have approved of. She would love to think something good has come out of this.”
Jason’s vision of free education for poor children living in one of India’s most poverty stricken regions has been supported by two British holidaymakers who, by chance, saw the school at first hand and wanted to support it.
Christine Browning and Roger Maclaverty have made and organised donations as well as applied for grants to support the school. Most recently they have successfully applied for the school to become a registered charity – The Hannah Memorial Academy Charitable Trust – allowing even greater support in years to come.
Now a total of 122 girls and boys attend the school for four- to 11-year-olds, although some of the pupils are older having never been taught before. Those that were lucky enough to have any sort of lessons beforehand would have attended a school that was only open two days a month.
Most of their parents, earn R100 a day (£1.10) on a tea plantation and are illiterate, signing their names with a thumbprint.
Christine, who runs her own shoe business, said: “You educate a child and you educate a family and the next generation.
“The result of Jason’s vision is a happy, thriving community of children and teachers.
“The school stands proud as a heart warming and fitting memorial for Hannah that is supported by her family and many local people, as well as by trustees and supporters in the UK.”
Since opening in 2005, the school has expanded from one oversized hut to six properly constructed classrooms set around a play area. There is also a separate toilet block with girls’ and boys’ toilets and washbasins, a separate building for teachers’ meetings and a library as well as a building for volunteer English teachers and visitors.
The school has seven teachers and two classroom assistants who deliver the standard Indian curriculum to children who are grouped by ability.
Christine says: “The core subjects taught are English, Nepali (their home language) and Hindi. Children learn reading and writing in all three of them under the national curriculum, plus maths and science with history and geography added in year two.”
The school is equipped with the correct workbooks and textbooks used by the best schools in Darjeeling and a library of English story books. As well as offering lessons throughout the week the school opens its doors every Saturday morning for activities, games and singing.
The school, which has seven local trustees, is registered with the West Bengal Government, after passing a formal inspection and assessment.
Christine, who lives in Surrey with her lawyer husband Roger, said: “Throughout all of this the village is in control.”
During the past year the school has developed into a real community hub – offering more than just lessons.
Christine said: “The local GP visits monthly – children are weighed and measured and treated for illnesses such as coughs, infections and worms and x-rays organised after falls – all for free.
“Medicines are also donated by doctors, pharmacies and the Red Cross and the school is a centre for polio vaccination.
“The mayor and councillors of Darjeeling have visited the school on several occasions and wholeheartedly support it.”