Reverend Elisha Satvinder knows how valuable a good education is. Growing up in a Sikh family in Petaling Jaya, his father died suddenly from a heart attack, leaving his mother to raise six children on her own, often working hard and leaving the young Satvinder to his own devices. “I became an outstanding student in school – I was standing out of class all the time,” he recalls with a laugh. By the age of 18, he was working in a tavern (“I often say I served the wrong spirit, behind the wrong bar council”) and was heading down a bad track, but turned his life around at 20 when God spoke to him. He joined a church and made a commitment to make his life right, where he began helping out and working with the young people there, encouraging them go to school. “I started doing that without realizing it because I knew in my own heart I wasted 20 years of my life just being a complete nincompoop,” he says.
Five years later, Satvinder married his wife, Petrina, both going on to the US to study in a seminary before returning to Malaysia and relocating to Pekeliling Flats (on what is now Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur), where the story of Dignity for Children Foundation begins. Together with the New Covenant Community Church, they reached out to the poor community around them after seeing that something needed to be done, “I walked in (that community) one day because I thought we could bring some clothes, rice for the families, condensed milk… I saw the kids and, when they were running around, my mind was racing forward.” Families in unstable conditions (domestic violence and drug abuse were prevalent) made them fear for the wellbeing of the children, so the two of them gathered up as many as they could and put them in tuition classes to get them excited about education and divert their attention to making the right decisions in life.
Children from age 2-17 are enrolled to receive a rounded education to include urban gardening.
Their gaze extended to the squatter community in the neighbouring Sentul, where Petrina would go with food for the families and ask the parents to let the children come to school to learn to read and write. These children would be picked up by them in their secondhand, beaten up Nissan van (which would later be stolen) and brought to the makeshift school taking up four floors of an office building in Sentul Boulevard – where the school remains today, spread out across the complex. Everything they had was donated but more important to them were the eager children hungry to learn. “For us it was just intervention. It was just looking at a need and saying, ‘If nobody does anything, what’s going to happen to this girl, to this boy’?” Satvinder says. Petrina went on to study the Montessori system and did her Masters in child holistic development in Penang, bringing with her a clearer direction for creating the first Montessori Preschool for the underprivileged. They also began receiving children from refugee communities, first with the Rohingya 18 years ago and now with Somali, Yemeni, Egyptian, Pakistani, Syrian, and Iranian children.
The school was officially founded on 1 September 1998, and will turn 20 later this year with a great celebration. But, from the beginning, the goal has always been clear for them: to use education to break the cycle of poverty. Children from the age of two to 17 enrolled in the foundation receive a preschool, primary and secondary education, counselling, sports development, hygiene care and nutritious meals, as well as vocational training – what they call ‘transformational enterprise’, where they learn skills like café management, sewing and design, hairdressing, early childhood education and urban gardening, and apply them to initiatives run by the school to integrate them into the local community.
Sentul Boulevard itself is a high-intensity business development, so it’s sometimes a surprise to see children in school uniforms walking between buildings and going to class. But, with their presence, the rooftops of their school buildings have flourished into gardens where they plant vegetables and later sell them; they have established the neighbourhood Eat x Dignity café (formerly known as Project B), where students can work front of house, kitchen or even get subsidised meals; and will soon be starting their bakery programme Bake x Dignity and an ambitious B&B project. “It’s part of their training process,” Satvinder says. “They do their IGCSEs, minimal subjects, but, at the same time, they do (the different initiatives by Dignity) so, when they finish at 17, they have different skills at hand. They engage real-time customers. It’s not a bubble, it’s not just staff; they’re problem-solving and making decisions. It’s a holistic engagement of education.”
One of Dignity for Children’s big dreams is to expand this concept to something call the Urban Youth Education Village for the Underprivileged. As part of its 20th anniversary gala dinner celebration on 29 September, the organisation will be raising funds and hoping to realise the project by 2020, keeping it true to the intention of community integration. “Everyday life must be engaged, where people see the students and students see people,” Satvinder says. “As a society, we keep segregating and it’s getting worse. But if you look back, cultures never did that. Maintaining the core idea of family and community many times was the fabric of society. We have become so cruel as a society.”
Notably, Dignity for Children had the honour to receive former US President Barak Obama in 2015 as part of his visit to Kuala Lumpur, someone Satvinder fondly remembers as “one of the most pleasant people I’ve ever met”. Framed pictures of his hour-long visit are proudly hung on the walls of the administration building and also at the exact spot where he ate at their café. It’s a unique memento for the community and it was a great affirmation for everyone at the foundation. “It gave us a profile. It validated our work and I appreciate that”.
Currently, the student population stands at 1,000, and some of the kids (as the Reverend calls them) are the children of former students after they have graduated and started families of their own. The ultimate goal for the foundation is to pass on the baton to the students, to take over the reins of the school and continue the good work. “Our desire is to raise the next generation to take over,” he says. “That is a very clear, intentional desire and goal, that as we do this, the next generation works with us and, eventually, start taking over more and more. So we step aside and say, ‘Here, it’s yours, go, run’. And get out of their way.”
TEXT FLAVIA GALEOTTI
PHOTOGRAPHY ROBIN LIEW
ART DIRECTION PENNY CHEW