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Henry Unwin

The pioneer Vounteer

Henry was our first volunteer. He came fresh from school in his gap year. He had no experience but an open mind, abundant energy and willingness to adapt to strange conditions. Together with General Jimmy Singh, he helped to lay the foundation and built up the ethos of Awake and Shine School. He worked hard to learn, teach, and gain the confidence of the community. Surmounting many challenges, Henry contributed much to the founding of the school. He is fondly remembered by the community. This is what Henry wrote about his experiences:

Henry Writes

My time in India came at a transformational period in my life and went a long way to shaping who I am and what I do today.

Its time to Awake and Shine!

In January 2007, armed with a one week TEFL course and a copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (my favourite childhood book), I embarked on the greatest journey of my life. Little did I know of the challenges and the rewards that lay ahead.

The journey to Samthar alone was an adventure in itself; driving through the plains, plantations and forests north of Bagdogra Airport, along the banks of the teeming Teesta River and through the mighty foothills of the Himalayas to Samthar. After this long journey I was welcomed by a greeting party fronted by the towering figure of General Jimmy Singh and all his staff in the pitch black in front of Samthar Farm House. Despite the dark, drowsiness and disorientation I was comforted by the knowledge of the warmth and friendliness that awaited me. Two years earlier Alice, my sister, travelled to Samthar to volunteer at a school just along the valley. My parents decided to pay her a visit and after googling ‘places to stay in Samthar’ they were very surprised and even more delighted to stumble upon Samthar Farm House. Ever since their visit we have been involved in the school in various ways from teaching and sponsoring children to donating laptops and spreading the word about this great project.

Confusion and Challenges

It was a great time to arrive. The construction of the school was under way and I was chucked in at the deep end with a curriculum to write, teachers to interview and children to enroll. After a few weeks hurtling around the towns and cities in the foothills of the Himalayas and the plains to the south on the back of Sudesh’s Enfield and in Jimmy’s Suzuki Gypsy, we had gathered all the equipment needed to get the school up and running.  All that was left was our uniform. I have fond memories of lining up with all the kids before the start of the term at the village tailor to get them measured up for their red shirt and camouflage trousers - a nod to Jimmy’s army heritage and his practical approach to schooling!

My first day in the schools was nothing short of a disaster. The majority of the morning was spent trying to herd children into one end of the classroom and pushing their parents out of the other. The look in the General’s face told of the challenging times we had ahead of us!

Luckily I was part of a great team and had the support to get me through. I worked together with Charles, Pascalina, Catherine, Pavitra and slowly things began to take shape. I took great pleasure in working with such a dedicated team. One of the greatest things I witnessed whilst I was in Samthar was Pascalina’s development from a class Assistant, not speaking English language to a Nursery teacher.

As the weeks and months went by, the children grew confident, lessons became more structured and productive and I developed a relationship with the teachers, children and their parents; the school became an integral part of the local community. Over the six months I was there, the children really progressed in their self-assurance, health, happiness and education. However, these modest achievements have been dwarfed by the amazing success the school, teachers and pupils have gone on to achieve in the following years.

Life at Samthar

Never have I been made to feel so welcome by so many strangers. My experience in Samthar was made by its truly remarkable people. General Jimmy became a father like figure to me and we spent a great deal of time sharing stories late into the night on the furry yak rugs over warm glasses of brandy. I am yet to meet a more remarkable and generous man. I spent much of my time (probably a little too much) in and out of village houses, going to local weddings and getting in the way of Tara in the Farm House kitchen as she conjured up the most amazing food. The food at the Farm House merits a whole website to itself!

I will never forget the days of heavy rain, thunder and lightning, when I would be welcomed to take cover in all the houses between the school and the Farm House at the top of the hill. Over the months my broken Nepali gradually improved and I enjoyed these encounters more and more. When travelling around Sikkim and other areas of India I could not help comparing it to the landscape and people of Samthar. They are a world apart. Samthar is truly a unique and special place.

All good things must come to an end!

I have never felt so sad, as I did when the time came for me to leave Samthar.  My six months in Samthar have made a lasting impression on me and the experience will stay with me forever. Although my visit was only half a year, it was packed with great adventures from bird watching treks in Arunachal Pradesh and visiting local Shamans to morning walks to watching the sun rise over Kangchenjunga and witnessing the makings of a great project grow. All I could hope is that one day I would be lucky enough to return.

The return to Samthar after 5 years

After five years I returned to India with my family to see the class I started in 2007 graduate from the school in 2012. I was amazed to see what had happened in the time I was away. Pascalina my class Assistant had transformed herself into a talented Nursery teacher. The tiny nursery school children I left had grown in height and in confidence. I was able to sit down with them and have a flowing conversation in English. It was really heart-warming that some of the children remembered ‘Henry Sir’ and seemed very happy to see me again.

The progress that has been made at Awake and Shine is remarkable. What was once a small class of nursery children has grown into a primary school with seven classes with great facilities, a brilliant team of teachers and ever growing support from the local community. It was very emotional to see the positive impact this project was having.

After my visit I wrote to the General:  “What an amazing trip. I cannot believe the changes that have occurred in Samthar, it is truly amazing. It is clear that a huge amount of effort has been put in by all the staff with some rigorous guidance from Maureen! I have never seen such intelligent, happy, healthy, noisy and loved children. They are very fortunate to be involved with such a fantastic project. The children of Awake and Shine have developed something within them which will always be there. Their ambition and confidence will stand them in good stead wherever they go.”

In 2007, Project Awake and Shine seemed an unachievable dream. However, the vision, dedication, generosity and patience of General Jimmy Singh has turned this dream into a reality. It is incredible to see what has been achieved. The genuine passion and commitment behind the project is inspiring and unique. The focus is not only on teaching children English but teaching them the confidence and passion to live happy and successful lives. This method of teaching was completely new when I arrived in Samthar and made for some strange looks from the local community. Taking the children around the village on “nature walks” dressed in our unusual uniform was not a traditional teaching method. However, it was visionary and it has worked.

I am so proud to have been able to get involved in this awe inspiring project. I am so lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time with General Jimmy Singh and the people of Samthar in this unique and special community. My time in India came at a transformational period in my life and went a long way to shaping who I am and what I do today. I encourage anyone with passion and enthusiasm to head to Samthar and change the way they see the world. 

Henry Unwin