Idea born on train platform gathers steam
Children at the Nyaka School in Uganda, which has received grant money from the Global Fund for Children.
“It all starts with a spark,” reads the cover of the annual report of the Global Fund for Children, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has given away more than US$11 million to community organizations around the globe. But what ignites that spark?
For Maya Ajmera, founder and president of the organization, it was the Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship that financed a year of graduate study in India. Sponsored by the Rotary Club of China Lake, Calif., USA, Ajmera studied at St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. She visited Rotary clubs as she traveled around the country “in every possible way: rickshaw, yaks, the back of a truck.”
In Bhubaneshwar, in the state of Orissa, she got off a train at a bustling station.
“I saw 40 kids sitting in a circle learning to read and write,” Ajmera recalls. She learned that the children at the “train platform school” lived in the station, eating, sleeping, and begging there, but not going to school. Ajmera spoke to the woman in charge, who told her: “I bring the school to the children.”
Ajmera asked her what it cost: $400 a year for two teachers. “It was there that I had what I call my moment of obligation,” says Ajmera, 41. “I thought, how do you bring small amounts of capital to the most worthy grass-roots organizations?”
After attending the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C., USA, she created the Global Fund for Children in 1994. “We have made 1,933 grants assisting 323 community-based organizations in 66 countries,” including the train platform school in Orissa, says Ajmera. “And more than a million children have benefited from our work.”
The organization’s success is based on investing in local leaders, she says. “If you have home-grown people, people who live there and continue this work, rather than outsiders coming in, it’s going to stick.”
In October 2007, Ajmera was profiled in a segment of CNN’s Heroes. Cheryl Dorsey, president of Echoing Green, a New York City-based group that provides fellowships for “emerging social entrepreneurs,” calls Ajmera – a 1993 Echoing Green fellow who now sits on the board – one of her most trusted advisers.
“She’s an incredible talent who is a visionary and an amazing social change agent,” Dorsey says, citing Ajmera’s “ability to work across sectors and across boundaries to bring diverse stakeholders together.”
The Global Fund for Children has put out 25 children’s books with Charlesbridge Publishing; more than 500,000 are in circulation, providing an income stream for projects, including movies aimed at celebrating the joys of childhood and diverse cultures.
“I want to show the beautiful side,” Ajmera says, disdaining the prevailing images of poor children. “There’s more to children than just their suffering,” she says, while noting, “We all play a part in reaching those children.”
Ajmera appreciates her earliest benefactors. “If I didn’t have this fellowship, there wouldn’t be a Global Fund for Children,” she says. “It was the Rotary fellowship, it was being at that train station and seeing that school. Rotary gave me that opportunity.”
Learn more at www.globalfundforchildren.org.