Jagos, a village about two hours north of New Delhi on the shore of the Yamuna River, is easily overlooked in India.
Just 2,390 people lived in Jagos in 2011 according to a census — practically nothing compared with India’s population of approximately 1.3 billion.
But it’s also a place that a group of L.V. Rogers students will never forget.
Ten students, including one from Creston’s Prince Charles Secondary, and two chaperones travelled to India in December for a 14-day cultural exchange. During the trip, the group was asked about poverty in Canada.
Kathy Centrone, one of the chaperones and a family youth worker at LVR, remembers shrugging off the question. Of course Canada has poverty, she said. In response, S.K. Sharma, the chairman of the Rishikul Vidyapeeth private school in nearby Sonipat, took the group to his home village of Jagos.
“I feel like we were a little bit arrogant in our answer because, when we went to [Jagos], we have poverty but our poverty doesn’t look like that poverty,” she said. “There’s safety nets built into our society where people can potentially access support. It’s not always easy and it’s not flawless but there are things and places to potentially get help.
“That wasn’t there.”
Centrone said visiting Jagos was an eye-opening experience for herself and the students. Just 55 per cent of the population is literate (only 21 per cent of women can read), and only 33 per cent are employed, according to the 2011 census. Centrone said residents use dried cow poop to heat their homes, and they rely on the chairman for financial assistance.
While LVR students handed out food to the people of Jagos, Centrone stood back and cried.
“We don’t see that here. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, it’s just maybe not in front of us as much.”
Centrone, instructor Jennifer Kidd and their students described the trip to Jagos as well as the rest of their adventure at a School District 8 board meeting last week.
It’s the second time in two years the school district has sent a delegation of students to India. Participants had to apply to make the 36-hour trip to Sonipat, where they were put up by host families, participated in events with one of the local schools and toured the area with trips to New Delhi, the city’s Canadian embassy and the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Several students said they were surprised by the intense emotional connections they ended up making over just two weeks with their host families.
“The home stay families in India, they literally took our students on like their own family,” said Centrone. “They were so honoured to have our students come and stay with them that it became a comfortable, safe space.”
The group also spent plenty of time at Rishikul Vidyapeeth, which had approximately 3,000 students from kindergarten to Grade 12. Centrone described the classes as regimented and in many ways an artifact of British colonial rule. But Centrone said local educators could also learn plenty from the school’s pride, which she said was evident in and outside the classroom.
Centrone and Kidd met with the school’s faculty, who said they thought India’s relatively recent independence in 1947 contributed to what they described as an education system 40 years behind Canada’s.
“So they’re trying to bring their education what they feel is forward. Not quite as regimented, not quite as traditional rote learning. A bit more hands-on, experiential learning, which is how our district is going.”
It wasn’t all work. The students took day trips with their host families, and one day Centrone and Kidd somehow found themselves judging a fashion-talent show — for babies and toddlers.
“It was a big deal. It was on the news in Sonipat, there were dignitaries, it was a really big deal.”
Centrone said there were plenty of tears when it was time to return home. Nelson will host a delegation from Sonipat in late June similar to the city’s 30-plus year cultural exchanges with Izu-shi, Japan.
But the trip to India, Centrone said, made a lifelong impact on her students.
“I think the kids just wanted more time because they realized they’d actually made friends for life and just wanted to spend more time with them.”