Philanthropy on film: A big win when words spell the future
Bee The Future showcases a spelling bee for disadvantaged children from Bangalore, India’s poorest schools. The audience holds their breath as they witness the longest and most intense competition in the spelling bee’s history, which will change the life of the winner forever.
Sahasra Deepika, meaning ‘a thousand lights,’ is a foundation established more than 20 years ago by Northern Virginia residents Dr. T.V. Ramakrishna and his wife, Vijaya Ramakrishna. Today, the organization houses and educates 75 underprivileged girls on their campus in Bangalore and reaches more than 2,500 children in the community annually through their outreach program.
The outreach program focuses its efforts on developing English language skills in children who attend underserved government schools taught primarily in Kannada, the state language. In Bangalore, a city often referred to as the “Silicon Valley of India,” fluency in English can be the determining factor in getting a well-paying job. And although English is a part of the curriculum, poor students often don’t get enough opportunity to develop fluency.
For the past 10 years as part of the foundation’s community outreach program, Sahasra Deepika has held an English tutoring program culminating in a spelling bee. Dr. Ramakrishna, Sahasra Deepika’s founder, modeled the program on the Scripps National Spelling Bee, using words from the students’ textbooks. Volunteers work with ninth grade students for several months and the top four students from local schools are eligible to compete. The winner of the spelling bee is granted a full college scholarship and a chance for a bright future.
Today, Sarva Rajendra, the daughter of Dr. Ramakrishna and Vijaya, heads Sahasra Deepika Foundation for Education, a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization based here in Virginia. Dedicated to Sahasra Deepika’s mission of empowering and enlightening lives through education, Sarva teamed up with Monika Samtani, president and founder of Ms. Media (msmedia.tv), an international Media Management firm in Washington, D.C., to tell the story of the Sahasra Deepika Spelling Bee.
Well-known in the Indian American community as a trailblazer for her achievements in the media industry, Monika was one of the first professional South Asian broadcast journalists in Washington, D.C. Together Sarva and Monika share the impactful work that the Sahasra Deepika Foundation is doing in India through their award-winning, short film, “Bee the Future.”
Q&A WITH SARVA AND MONIKA
MONIKA, how did you and Sarva initially connect and what was it about this that made you decide to bring this story home?
M: Sarva and I initially connected when I started my firm Ms. Media back in 2014. She was my first client! Sarva reached out and asked if my company would be interested in telling the story of Sahasra Deepika, of her parents, who founded it (after they retired), and the girls who have benefited from it. I JUMPED at the opportunity. Once I visited the foundation in India, I knew I had to bring this story home.
As a storyteller, it’s been the chance of a lifetime to tell the world about this amazing family from Virginia and the impact the foundation has had on the children of Bangalore for two decades. I’ve seen firsthand the transformation of the girls at Sahasra Deepika, and its truly changing lives for the better and forever. If I hadn’t taken the leap of faith and left my job in broadcast television to start my own company, this never would have happened for me. So as the saying goes, “Dream Big.”
SARVA, we understand your parents started the foundation two decades ago, what was their original motivation, and have they achieved what they set out to accomplish?
S: My parents have always strived to make a difference. To them, serving those in need is the highest duty we have. They understood from a young age the role of education in transforming lives. Especially my father, whose widowed mother could barely make ends meet. None of his siblings went beyond high school, but he longed to accomplish his dreams. Poverty was a huge obstacle because it not only creates financial pressure, it can rob one’s self-confidence. One day a teacher recognized my father’s potential in front of the whole class. This made a huge impact on him, lighting a fire that led him to win scholarships, and eventually build a life with my mother in the U.S. But they never forgot those they left behind. They wanted others to feel the transformative power of education and change as many lives as possible. That original motivation is as strong as ever.
When Sahasra Deepika started, my parents couldn’t have imagined how it would grow and transform over the next two decades. Even if they had changed just one or two children’s lives, that would have been a huge success. My parents have touched so many lives, not only through the residential program at Sahasra Deepika, but through the outreach program, women’s empowerment programs, and the strength of their leadership. I believe that they’ve achieved and surpassed their own expectations, but they’d disagree and say that there is so much more to do! They’ve accomplished so much, providing children with the opportunity to rise higher than their parents and break the cycle of poverty. They epitomize the power of selfless service.
SARVA, tell us about the most important lesson that you have learned from your parents?
S: I’ve learned so many lessons from my parents. They’ve demonstrated that when you are armed with purpose and conviction, you can change the world. So many people wait until the “right” moment, but the best time to begin is now. The greatest lesson I’ve learned from them can be summed up in Nelson Henderson’s quote: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” Living with a servant heart and helping others to rise in the world rewards us immeasurably. The education and nurturing that the children of Sahasra Deepika receive will echo through the generations to come, changing the world forever.
SARVA, what is the message that you and your parents hope to spread through the work of Sahasra Deepika?
S: Sahasra Deepika means a thousand lights of hope. If each of us can join hands and help a child in need, wherever they are, then the lives of their families and communities will change. There is so much talent and genius that exists in the most overlooked places. Children in poverty, without hope and opportunity, are what my parents call diamonds in the dust. Through education and encouragement, support and care, the path forward is illuminated, creating a ripple effect that will echo through the following generations.
MONIKA, you’ve spoken about involving local students in the efforts of Sahasra Deepika. How do you aim to do this?
M: The girls at Sahasra Deepika come from difficult situations. My goal is to create a connection with kids in the United States to Sahasra Deepika by inspiring them to think about humanity as a whole, to pay it forward, and rid of an ‘us vs. them’ mentality. We are creating awareness about the opportunity that is fostered everyday at this extraordinary foundation, and show what can happen when children are given an education, love, encouragement, life skills, and are taught that they DO matter.
We now have kids here thinking creatively at a young age about unique activities to engage and fundraise for Sahasra Deepika. They are the next generation of thought leaders, designing ways to become true change makers. The result is a wonderful satisfaction that they are connecting with children on the other side of the world – giving them hope for a better future.
MONIKA, speaking about the film, was it pure coincidence that you chose the girl who ended up winning the spelling bee, to film and interview as she prepared for the contest, or did you see something exceptional in her?
M: It actually ended up being pure, total coincidence that the girl we chose to interview ended up winning the bee. We had to take a chance and reach out to the families of the girls and the boys that were competing and hope that when our film crew arrived at their homes, many of which were more like shacks, that they would be there at the designated time. Priyanka and her family happened to be there… and we filmed them the day before the final spelling bee. When she ended up winning the very next day, we were all completely floored. It was an amazing moment, and a perfect coincidence. And then the crew followed her back to her home to tell her parents because they didn’t have any other means of communication. We filmed the reaction of her parents when she told them she’d won, that she now had the chance to go to college. It was so, so powerful and so emotional. Just a truly moving experience and incredible to witness. To top it all, the following year Priyanka ended up being invited by SCRIPPS National Spelling Bee to attend the weeklong festivities leading up to the final competition at MGM National Harbor in Washington, D.C. She was highlighted on local and national television here.
MONIKA, we heard that you will be going back to Bangalore this summer. What’s the mission of your upcoming trip?
M: I’m really excited to be accompanying a group of students from the Washington, D.C. area who’ve been working for the last couple of years on raising funds for the Sahasra Deepika campus. They wanted to create programs that would improve the lives and learning environment for the girls there, and one of the things they came up with was a sports court. That’ll be completed this summer, and we’ll be going back for the ribbon cutting ceremony. A few of the kids will be teaching basketball and leadership skills to the girls, plus incorporating the overall importance of physical fitness. Another idea is a music program, and we have a student volunteer who will be teaching the girls a song, which they will perform at the ribbon cutting for the court. And the third idea is vocational training so some of the parents that are going can get involved. All of these are sustainable programs that can continue for years down the road. The students here in the U.S. plan to bring new volunteers back to Sahasra Deepika later and continue with the fundraising efforts. I’m very excited and blessed to be a part of such an important and impactful foundation, changing the world, one girl at a time.
SARVA, how can local families get involved and support the work of the Sahasra Deepika Foundation?
S: We want to spread Sahasra Deepika’s message far and wide. Please check our website, sdie.org, watch the films, and learn about the obstacles gender inequality and poverty create in the lives of girls. We also have a selective Youth Ambassadors program for high school students that’s worth looking into if you’re a motivated young leader who’d like to get involved in our mission.