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Farmington teacher brings education to the slums

Riverview Elementary School teacher Jennifer Needham has spent time in India developing a school that is scheduled to open this year.

One Farmington teacher loves her profession so much, she's helping to start a school. Granted, it's half-way around the world, but when you've got a big heart, miles don't seem to matter.

Riverview Elementary School fourth grade teacher Jennifer Needham spent her spring break in India to train and equip up-and-coming teachers of a new school aimed at serving children in poverty.

The school is scheduled to open this summer, after years of planning and preparation. Needham won't be there for opening day, but she's okay with that. Just knowing she has helped the project along is good for now.

Needham first went to India in 2008, as part of a mission trip through Hosanna! Lutheran Church in Lakeville. It was a life-changing experience.

"I saw children in slums, children playing in the streets, children playing in garbage, while they should have been in school," she said.

The problem, though, is that there are hundreds of families living below poverty there, and schools are not readily available for those with no money.

Needham doesn't disclose where she was in India, and she is reluctant to give names of people she works with there. Hosanna! partners with the organization Hands for Freedom to do the mission trips, but Christianity is a political hot-button in India. Some of the people she has worked with have suffered retribution for their work, and she fears sharing specifics like names and locations for that reason.

But that doesn't stop her contribution. Over spring break, she traveled with a group of women who are also contributing to the school project.

Most of the children the school targets are from the slums. Many have single mothers, Needham said. The organizers believe that educating these children gives them a much-needed chance at a better life -- especially for the younger girls.

"Many of these children are forced into the sex trade," Needham said. "They're promised a job in the city when they actually end up in the red light district."

At first, the school will offer classes for children in preschool through first grade. As the school gains acceptance and financial support, additional grades will be added. For now, pastors and women who work for a place called Hope Center are taking on the role of teachers. Hope Center is a place for kids to go that is safe, but it's not a school.

The organizers had to come up with a financial plan to fund the school. They have set up a number of projects to fund the school, including an affordable tuition plan down the road.

Needham is familiar with the limited opportunity for education for children who live in slums. On her first trip to India, she taught in an orphanage. It touched her beyond words. She and her husband decided to adopt a daughter from India, but she really wanted to help more.

"My thought was, while I can only adopt one, how can I make a difference for thousands? That's what kind of drives me," Needham said. "It's been a hope, a prayer, a need. And thankfully, things have come together over time."

Her work in India also puts her life in the comfort of the United States into perspective. She came back to a home, clean drinking water and clothing. That's more than she can say for the women and children she worked with over her spring break. And yet, she envies the pace of life, the focus on family and the deep relationships she saw while there.

Technology has afforded her the opportunity to stay in contact with school organizers in India. Through the Internet she is able to connect with the group and make plans from her home. Her hope next year is to figure out a way to connect her fourth grade classroom with the school in India, and build some long-distance relationships among all of the students she cares about.

Since she was just in India this year, Needham will not be there when the doors open in June. However, she's hoping to get back again in July, 2014. Regardless, she knows the educators she works with who are in India will make a difference.

"Our goal is we don't want to start more orphanages. We want to help the kids, the moms, the families. It's been a whole process of keeping kids safe and keeping them with their families. This school will give them the education they need, keep them out of the cycle of poverty, and allow them to get good jobs," Needham said.

Michelle Leonard

Michelle Leonard joined the Woodbury Bulletin staff in November, 2014, after 14 years covering news for the Bulletin's sister publication, the Farmington Rosemount Independent Town Pages.  Michelle earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications: News-Editorial from Mankato State University in 1991. She is an active member of the American Legion Auxiliary Clifford Larson Unit 189 of Farmington, and served as the 2014-15 Third District President to the American Legion Auxiliary Department of Minnesota. Michelle is also the volunteer coordinator for the Minnesota Newspaper Museum which is open annually during the Minnesota State Fair. She has earned Minnesota Newspaper Association awards in Investigative Reporting, Local News Coverage, Feature Photography and Column Writing. 

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