Rikin Shah spreads hope

London-based charity Wings of Hope came to visit India with a group of 17-year-old boys from an elite London school that had qualified to work with underprivileged children after a very exhaustive selection process. Thrown out of their comfort zones during the trying qualifying process, the boys learnt not just some tough life lessons, they also picked up valuable management and organizational skills along the way. An INDIA EMPIRE team made up of Nidhi, Deepali Gera and Pooja Mehrish caught up with this unique group in New Delhi

“In charity there is no excess”
—Sir Francis Bacon

There is something remarkably true about what Sir Francis says. The more you carry it out, the less it always seems, for the chasm between those who have, and those who live on practically nothing, is widening by the day. Wings of Hope (WOH), a British children’s charity co-founded by Rajni Sriram and her husband R Sri Ram in the year 2003 seeks to do just that. WHO takes up the cause of underprivileged children in India and Malawi through a range of fund-raising projects in the U.K. 

“My husband and me thought we should give back to India, our mother country, since we had received so much from it,” says SriRam who attended Delhi’s Miranda House College before emigrating to the U.K. in the 1970s. Ensuing from that noble thought, they have vigorously supported schools in Chennai in India and in Malawi in Africa for several years. SriRam articulates that the charity functions on a triangular model, where two sides comprise Projects and Students and the base of the triangle is covered by successful Brands. 

Thus far, the charity has motivated over 10,000 students from across 250 schools in the U.K.—including grammar, private, and state-run ones—to get involved with the helping out of the underprivileged. Big brands have pitched in for the cause: to name a few, Arup, Saatchi and Saatchi, Accenture, Boots, Edelman, Tata and Cipla have teamed up with WOH. Leading British citizens patronize and support the charity known for its innovative style of involving and motivating young students in the U.K. to raise funds. 

Vishaal Patel is surrounded by a happy lot R Sri Ram and Rajni Sriram
YES WE CAN: From left Anand Dhamecha, Paras Shah, Vishaal Patel, Rajni Sriram, Rohit Bhatia, Rikin Shah, Tej Malde during their stay in New Delhi

Wings of Hope’s August trip to India involved nine students, six of whom (all aged 17) were available in New Delhi to talk with INDIA EMPIRE and take us through the project. The boys we spoke to were Anand Dhamecha, Paras Shah, Rikin Shah, Rohit Bhatia, Tej Malde, and Vishaal Patel. All are students at Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School a.k.a. HABS at Elstree, Hertfordshire, a tony private school set over a scenic and green 103 acres of land. 

A fifth of HABS’ students end up in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, ranking HABS among the top 20 schools in England that send maximum students to these hallowed institutions. The school is known for its excellence in academics, its fees (but, of course) and its settings. When recently David Beckham and his wife Victoria visited the school, some 30 miles away from their home, looking to send their children there when they return from their stay in the USA sometime soon, it was evident that they weren’t quite welcome. Jibes taken on websites indicated that the Beckhams’ working class background wouldn’t quite gel with the school’s more cerebral image, that it wasn’t meant just for the moneyed but for those who could wade their through some really tough entrance and qualification tests. 

Except Rohit, the rest of the students are of Gujarati origin (their parents immigrated to the U.K. from East Africa—Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, while their grandparents were from Gujarat). Rohit’s mother was born in Punjab while his father was born in Manchester in the U.K. 

In order to get to India, the six boys had to work hard for raising donations. They formed a group named the Light Side of the Moon (British rock band Pink Floyd wouldn’t mind that, would it? ). They competed at the Wings of Hope Achievement Award (WOHAA) with 450 teams across the U.K. and won. And as you’ll soon find out, in order to win, though, the boys had to stretch their creative abilities and push the envelope when it came to testing their physical tolerance. 


The group’s winning acts, that of raising the maximum amount of money, and convincing a very eminent jury of its considerable talent, began when it decided to target to raise 11,000 pounds. “The figure 11,000,” explained Rohit, “was based on the number of days Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi spent inside prison walls.” Mandela brought up the bulk of the number, of course, having spent 29 years in incarceration in a prison cell at Robben Island, seven miles from Cape Town in South Africa. His fault was that he had vowed to finish off the draconian apartheid regime that ruled this African country for over four decades. Gandhi, on the other hand, went to jail for taking on the then ruling British, but spent relatively shorter spells. 

The first winning act was a brave, 15-mile walk in t-shirts, shorts and slippers through the snowy streets in December 2010. The northern icy winds didn’t help, but the group set the chill aside, and braved the cold. About 25 – 30 people that they came across on desolate north London streets were handed out leaflets, explaining their cause. The response in the harsh weather was, not unexpectedly, less than lukewarm. “The idea,” as Tej was to explain us, “was to walk the tough road, live the life of hardship and extremities that we would expect the impoverished to be going through.” The walk helped raise awareness levels, but more excuses, and less donations came by. 

The next winning act was to walk on shards of broken glass, strewn across by smashing empty wine bottles. “It wasn’t the easiest thing to do,” reminisces Anand pointing towards his feet. “I walked through without the right technique and in the process injured a big toe very badly. By the end of it, things looked pretty unrecognizable and bloody.” But the biting pain apparently paid off, the group started to garner much needed support. 

And then came the third act—a thoroughly planned, well-executed, Dinner and Dance. Some of the boys dressed up like Mandela and Gandhi to make it a memorable event. They sold raffles, booked a hall for the event for which they were required to cough up money upfront, got a local boy to conduct the event for free, booked enough tables, and sold out about 300 tickets for the event. Several items, including a Sachin Tendulkar bat, were auctioned away. Befittingly, and as just reward for the hard work and meticulous planning, the Light Side of the Moon managed to raise 16,000 pounds, surpassing, by far, even their own expectations and that of the WOH brass. There were other rewards too, the opportunity to attend lectures by award winning public relation managers and top advertisement honchos. The group visited British Parliament, interfaced with several members, and was happy to leave a mark. 

And then the India trip happened. “It gave us a first-hand opportunity to see the children that we were actually doing all this for, for whom this entire exercise had been undertaken,” says Vishaal, chuffed that the group had come through after beating almost 450 other teams. 

The school they visited is in Nemilicherry in Chennai. Around 360 underprivileged children, between the ages of 4 and 16, attend the school. There are 17 dedicated teaching staff. The school aims not just to educate, but also to build character. Its philosophy of value-based education offers a traditional curriculum that blends wisdom from the ages with the latest advancements in scientific knowledge. There is no doubt that the students attending this school realize their education is a major turning point in the lives, not just for themselves, but also their families and their communities. 

As for the boys from HABS, the slippery walk on ice in December 2010 in t-shirts and shorts turned out to be a walk along the road less travelled. In the end, they managed to make a difference to the lives of several children far away from the comforts of their own homes.

August 2011

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