Fiona McGarry speaks to former Flannan’s teacher Liam Ashe whose NGO’s school in Kolkata is changing lives
AT 76 years of age, Doonbeg native Liam Ashe is a great advertisement for what he describes as “late adulthood”.
A teacher with four decades of experience, Liam is the driving force behind an NGO that is currently teaching 320 children in one of the most deprived parts of Kolkata in the Indian state of West Bengal.
He describes psychologist Maureen Gaffney as his “guru” and lives her precept that if you are active in retirement, you are still in late adulthood.
That, in part, explains the huge energy which the long-timer Ballyea resident puts into Balo Children Ireland which he set up after a visit to India over 15 years ago.
Liam is known to several generations for his work at St Flannan’s College, Ennis, where he taught History and Geography for 40 years. “I idolised those subjects,” he told The Champion.
“Part of the Geography syllabus covers global development and in 2005 he went to India to see the work pioneered by Mother Teresa.
A year later, he went back with 13 students and four teachers and a chance encounter with a volunteer he had met the previous year led to a life-changing experience.
“I’d met an Italian lady called Elisabeta and I passed her again on the street,” Liam explains.
“She told me she had set up a school and said she would bring me and the group to see it. The students were just entranced.
There were just 20 children there at the time I knew that moment I was signing up to get involved and I’ve been back 18 times since then.
“A touch of cancer, which I overcame in 2013, kept me away for a small while.”
Thanks to Liam’s efforts in setting up the NGO, the school has gone from strength-to-strength and now has a student body numbering 320.
Liam, who is also chairperson of Rice College, describes the work to run the NGO as “a part-time job”.
“We have a mission statement, child protection policies, teacher development initiatives and fundraising targets,” he said. “It costs around €90,000 a year to run the school and our target is between €45,000 and €50,000.”
A little bit of healthy competition with the Italian arm of the organisation ensures that Liam doesn’t get to sit on his laurels.
“Elisabeta might call me up and tell me she raised €6,000 the previous night through a fashion show. She knows what she’s doing,” he jokes.
“She likes to keep me on my toes and motivate me to keep up with her.”
Ordinarily, Liam would be running dances and all kinds of fundraisers to keep the school going.
Donors help to ensure it delivers what Liam describes as a holistic education.
“We teach children what they need to learn to get into college, but we also focus on nutrition and hygiene,” he said.
“In around a year-and-a-half, children can learn enough to get into college and have a life that is radically different from that of their parents.
“Most of the parents are day labourers and do incredibly tough jobs carrying deliveries from the station through a place called Bara Bazaar, which has the highest density of any urban population in Asia.
“It’s like the outside of Croke Park on All-Ireland Final day, but 24/7. In the middle of that, men are loaded up with several hundred weight of vegetables, which they then carry on their heads into the markets.
“Women carry huge volumes of cement in buckets, on their heads and climb up ramps onto huge building sites. This is their daily life and like everyone, they want a better future for their children.
“Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve been feeding parents as well as children. A
“ll the family’s income goes on food. There’s nothing for things like fridges or water filters. That’s why gastric problem are so prevalent.
“It’s very difficult for children to thrive in those conditions. That’s why we teach them about hand hygiene and they go home and teach that to their parents.”
Living conditions in Kolkata are something that few could imagine without having seen them.
Open drains run alongside busy laneways attracting vermin to the plentiful supply of scraps.
“There’s no green area and the school has no playground,” Liam outlines.
“There is one central park area in the city and a zoo, but ordinarily people live in families of four generations in very small spaces and high rise buildings.
“From where I stay when I go over, I have to cross the River Ganges everyday. That’s an amazing experience to cross a bridge built in 1931, which is used by one million people every day.”
Explaining life in Kolkata to people in Ireland is something that Liam does with typical passion.
“I meet First Years here in Clare and I tell them how they’re so much bigger and stronger than their counterparts in India,” he says.
“A typical classroom here could be home to a family of four generations. It was always very moving when I was teaching and a child would tell me they were the first person in their family to go to college. Now, that’s happening in Kolkata and it’s amazing.”
As the pandemic was declared, Liam found himself in a race against the coronavirus.
“I managed to get three new teachers appointed and then had to leave India,” he said.
“Elisabeta was stuck in Italy because they were so badly affected early in the pandemic, so she didn’t get there in 2020. I had just arrived before the pandemic, but it hadn’t hit India at that point. I got to Dubai and got the second last flight out of there before flights stopped.”
After the enforced absence, Liam is keen to return to Kolkata.
He always travels at his own expense and take a very strong stance in terms of openness and transparency in the charity sector.
“The money that we raise goes directly to the school,” he says.
“We have a board of six people and when we travel, that is at our own expense and our accounts are set up in such a way that we cannot transfer money within this country. We can only transfer it overseas.
“James Kelly, who is a past pupil, does our accounts free-of-charge and makes our returns to the regulator and Revenue. That’s an invaluable support that we’re very grateful for.”
Friends and family have proven to be another hugely important source of backing.
“My wife Frances and my children, as well as my sibling and in-laws and my whole extended family really have my back,” Liam says.
“They’re supportive of all of my work and fundraising. Gearóid Considine, whom I met in Dubai having had in my class years previously, has run some marathons to fundraise for Balo Children and that’s been really important. With friends like that, you can’t help but succeed.”
Another key initiative is a Go Fund Me campaign for Balo Children Ireland which was relaunched recently by Paul Flanagan.
“I really appreciated that,” Liam says. “There’s a lot of information on that page and if people could log on to Go Fund Me and donate to ‘Calcutta Balo Schools Project’, that would make a huge difference. I write a personal note to everyone who donates and that explains the difference that their contribution makes.”
Generous support from Rice College and support from key donors has also helped Balo Children Ireland to survive the restriction in fundraising.
“People really are wonderful and their support makes all the difference in doing what we do, which is giving children and families a hand up not a hand out,” he says.