Local family travels to India to help school

By Becky Aubut
Anchor Staff

NEW BEDFORD, Mass. — As kids planned ski trips tropical escapes during this past February school break  a student at St. James-St. John School in New Bedford was planning a trip of a different sort with her family, and asked that her fellow students get involved.

Already heavily involved in the school and its mission of charity, Principal Cristina Raposo wasn’t surprised to hear that the Costa Family had extended its philanthropic reach across the world to a school in India: “I had known they were going on this trip because dad had talked to me because Emilia was going to miss a few days of school before February vacation started. It was not a vacation she was going on, but doing God’s work.”

A month before her visit to India, Emilia Costa, 14, and an eighth-grader at the school, shared with Raposo what her family had already accomplished through their fund raising, and “her concern was the [students in India] were not as fortunate as the students at St. James-St. John School, so she wanted to bring to them basic school supplies like pens, pencils and erasers — that sort of thing,” said Raposo.

The school started a collection of basic school supplies where many families donated items, and the school combined its fund-raising efforts by offering a dress-down day, where students could donate money to Emilia’s cause. 

“This is what the kind of family the Costas are, and it makes me proud to know them because they’re such a positive influence in our community,” said Raposo.

Older sister Victoria Costa, 18, an alum of St. James-St. John School in New Bedford, their father Jimmy, and a few other individuals made the trip. The idea of “adopting” a school in India began a few years ago when Victoria, a pianist at Our Lady of Assumption Parish in New Bedford, met Father Joseph Pasala, who later befriended her father, Jimmy. 

“Father Joseph knew how involved we were in fund raising at St. John the Baptist,” said Jimmy, of the family’s previous parish. “He asked if we would consider getting involved in something, and it grew from there.”

Father Pasala’s sister volunteers at a school in the city of Nalgonda in the Indian state of Telangana, and without much hesitation, the Costa Family “adopted a school in India,” said Jimmy.

Through an annual fund-raiser held at the Costa home, the family would raise funds for the school, mainly using Facebook and word-of-mouth to spread the word about the afternoon dinner held in their backyard. The first year they featured the “Taste of Andhra and Goa,” and last year, the “Taste of India and the Lusophone World,” is a theme the family will repeat at this year’s third fund-raiser.

“The dollar goes a long way [in India],” said Jimmy. “The first year [the money raised] built three classrooms. The next year we sent money for additional supplies, the second fund-raiser was to put on a permanent roof [to replace the temporary tin roof], and it was at that point Father Joseph said, ‘You guys are getting very involved. Maybe you guys should consider going?’”

So they planned, packed and in February flew to India. It took the group almost two hours from where they were staying in India to travel to the school. While on the drive, the girls, Jimmy and a couple of others who accompanied them, were able to observe many aspects of India.

“I saw a lot of unfinished projects,” said Victoria. “There were things that were supposed to get done, the foundation was set, and then it was just surrounded by rubble.”

“Or there would be a billboard,” added Emilia, “and it would show a really fancy building on it, and [the finished project] would look nothing like it.”

When passing through some of the rural areas, there were less rubble-strewn construction areas, and more open rice fields; in one village, there was a festival going on, and villagers were confused — but not angry — over why a car was traveling on their street when the streets had been closed. The Costa’s group was late getting to the school, but upon arrival the students showed no frustration over the delay, but instead became joyous with appreciative applause filling the air.

“There was a pathway,” said Victoria, “and the students were lined up along the side for us to walk through, clapping.”

“When we got to the front of it,” said Emilia, “they gave us a peace offering and blessing.”

The group took their seats, and received garland leis and shawls. Students performed and some prayers were read, which were translated for the group. A special touch by the Costa sisters during the welcoming ceremony was when, during one of the presentations, they changed their clothes and donned saris they had purchased shortly after their arrival in India.

“When they went to go change and they walked out, it was dead silence,” said Jimmy. “They did not expect these Americans to come out dressed as Indians. That was one of the common things, that they were surprised at how educated we were in their culture to respect their traditions.”

The group spent a number of hours at the school and saw how younger grades sit on benches and each student has one note pad for all of his or her subjects. The children of very rural villages make up the school’s 600 students, with grades ranging from nursery to 10th grade. School is six days a week, beginning at 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and students can stay much later to study. Due to the distance some male students travel to the school, they are allowed to sleep overnight. 

Despite improving from a level of just 48 percent in 1991 to 73 percent in recent years, India still has a relatively low literacy rate — especially compared to other major emerging markets in Asia. 

“Ninety-five percent of the parents of the students have no education, at all,” said Jimmy. “This is a huge step.”

The group spent three days in Hyderabad, the capital of the state of Telangana; three days in Kolkata, the capital of the state of West Bengal; three days in Goa, a state in the coastal region known as Konkan; and then they returned to Hyderabad. 

A highlight was the visit to Kolkata, or as it’s also known, Calcutta, to visit the Mother House of the Missionaries of Charity to see St. Teresa of Calcutta’s final resting place.

“It was really hot and humid, compared to Hyderabad,” said Emilia. “It was a lot poorer.” 

“It was the poorest place that we went to,” added Victoria. “It was the most shocking place because when we first arrived, we had gone in with the idea that it was going to be very poor but we weren’t expecting what we saw. It’s something that’s normal for the people living there, but for us to go in and see it, it was completely different.”

“We crossed the Ganges on this boat,” said Emilia. “We went to the Church of the Immaculate Conception, and then we went to the house for the disabled.”

“It’s an elderly home and a home for the mentally and physically disabled,” said Victoria, “that’s supported by the Church.”

“That’s the one location that none of us took a picture at,” said Jimmy. “I think it was just too emotional to think that these are the people that, if these Sisters were not there, these people would not be alive.”

Another harsh juxtaposition between the “old” Kolkata and the “new” Kolkata, literally marked by a small wall, is the New Town Eco Park, located in Rajarhat, Kolkata. Inaugurated at the end of 2012 and situated on 480 acres and surrounded by 104 acres of water, the wealth of the area only steps away from some of the poorest in the nation had some of the Costas emotional.

“That part of the city was so shocking because it was so rich,” said Victoria. “It was so wealthy. You could see the government was pouring all of the funds into new apartment complexes and new amenities.”

“We went to the Eco Park,” added Emilia, “and it had a bunch of different activities that you could do. You could tell the people there were really wealthy, just by the way they dressed.”

“You could definitely tell where the money was being spent,” said Jimmy. 

What alarmed the family was the drastic difference between the poor and the wealthy just “literally down the street,” said Emilia. 

“I think that’s where you saw the disparity,” said Jimmy. “We had never seen anything like that.”

The future plans for the school in India includes possible expansion that would allow for a formal cafeteria (the students currently eat outside on the ground) and a science lab. Currently the Costas hope to raise the $8,500 that would make those two things possible. Jimmy and Emilia plan on visiting India again next year.

Jimmy said he had no idea that the initial fund-raiser would become an annual thing, but he added, “I now have 600 nieces and nephews in India,” and has no plans to stop raising money for them anytime soon.

The Costas are planning to hold their next fund-raiser on June 24; for more information, email Emilia at emilia.costa916@gmail.com. 

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