How little gift of a pencil can sprout life-long dream
WHEN Cabarita's Stevie Bellamy helped a group of Australians build a school for underprivileged families near Darjeeling in Northern India in 2013, he was part of a team that forever changed the lives and futures of 103 young children.
However, Stevie soon thought to himself: "Well, what about the rest?”
By then he was in Dharamsala, where the Dalai Lama lives, and after more than 20 years of travelling the world he began a dedicated quest to help as many young people as he could throughout India and Nepal.
Stevie's aim was to get children off the streets where they begged and rummaged through rubbish, his vision was to provide them with an education, and his first step was to hand out as many pencils as possible upon realising there was a desperate shortage of basic educational tools.
"If we can get kids to school, hopefully they will learn. And if they've got pencils, at least they can write something down,” he said.
Since founding his charity The Pencil Tree in 2014, Stevie has returned to the sub-continent six times, on each occasion taking a growing number of Tweed locals with him to provide support and supplies to the Chethru slum and five schools in Northern India.
Using funds collected from the sale of old mobile phones donated by the Tweed community, essentials such as clothes, pencils, reading and exercise books are delivered.
The charity works with locals to organise anything a school might need to help encourage children to attend, including see-saws and swing sets.
Stevie's heartfelt mission to make the world a better place for the poverty-stricken regions of Nepal and India has gained ground, with support growing locally and collaborative efforts with three children's homes now providing care for sponsored children.
He has recently returned from visiting the three homes his charity works with through the Hands with Hands charity in Nepal and the Tong-Len Charitable Trust in India.
"We're just a conduit and we've found two reputable foundations, so we raise money in Australia and then donate it straight to them,” he said.
In Nepal, the Annapurna Children's Home cares for 38 children aged between 5-18 and the Bhaktapur Children's Home cares for 28 youth, mostly aged between 11 and 17 years.
In India, the Tong-Len Children's Home in the village of Sarah has 107 children between the ages of three to 21.
Currently, The Pencil Tree sponsors seven of the children in India and eight children in the homes in Nepal, with nine more children urgently needing sponsorship.
"Most of the kids don't have parents, or their parents are disabled or have alcohol problems,” Stevie said. He said many Nepalese families had been devastated by the earthquake two years ago. In one family, the mother was killed leaving her blind husband to care for their children.
"Some children are not technically orphans, but some have parents who can't care for them. It's very emotional but these kids are so keen to learn so that's what we focus on,” he said.
"Some of these kids have been in care since they were a-day-and-a-half old.”
The Pencil Tree is now hoping that groups of four people in Australia - with each person giving $4 a week - can join together to help sponsor children and donate the $800 a year required to provide a bed, food, clothing and education for a child in a home. People can form their own groups or contact The Pencil Tree and be connected with others. Local businesses can also form teams, and 100 per cent of the money raised is given to the homes.
Six students from Mt St Patrick's College in Murwillumbah recently visited the region with The Pencil Tree volunteers and Stevie said the older children who visited were "marvellous” with the young children in the homes.
The exchange also showed Australian youngsters how lucky there are.
"We took one 15-year-old and he phoned his Dad after two days to say he was sorry for his behaviour at home!” he said.
A scholarship scheme was also established at the start of this year, giving private school education to two local children.
"If we can give them a good education, it will make a difference to the whole family.”
"On our last visit, we walked along the path past the houses and, when I walked closer, I realised the people were waving cucumbers at us.
They threw them to us for us to take home. They were all smiles and saying thank you.
"It was the best feeling in the world. They've got no money, but they've got a few spare cucumbers. It's very humbling.”
To donate or find out more visit thepenciltree.com.au, or their Facebook page.