Welcome to Mr. Arya’s School. His school sits in the middle of five villages filled with marginalized people.

These villages house thousands of people society has deemed unworthy of dignity, unworthy of an education, healthcare, and security. Sometimes, there’s not even clean water. Often, there is a missing parent. Always, there is a daily fight to survive.

But you wouldn’t know that if you visited the school, nestled in Southern India near the Bay of Bengal. The grounds are tidy, there is a brightly colored welcome mat in the sand to greet you, and a host of happy students and teachers eager to make you feel at home.

The school is remote enough that a driver meets you when you’re about 10 kilometers away. Oh, and there’s a festival in town, so you have to take some winding back roads to avoid the traffic jam and hordes of people coming to celebrate in grand Indian style. But when you arrive, the students are standing in the open hallways ready to greet you in a beautiful chorus of “GOOD MORNING, MA’AM” and “How are you today?” They will shower you with gold and green and pink scarves, and, if you’re lucky, you’ll be adorned with a fresh flower garland around your neck or maybe flowers bobby-pinned in your hair. You are the guest of honor today.

They will invite you on stage to bring greetings, and you’ll feel woefully inadequate and gratefully privileged at the same time. What do you really have to say to these darling faces, dressed up in fresh uniforms, who have overcome so much in the last two hours just to get to school?

And then you’ll sit and talk with Mr. Arya, and you’ll understand where this kind of generosity comes from. He is a gentle man, filled with compassion and driven by his calling to raise up children in poverty-stricken communities. He might be the kindest man you’ll meet on this trip to India. That kindness spills over into the way he treats his staff and his students. He serves them, and they gladly join him in making their school a safe place for the children and the community.

The villages around Mr. Arya sprung up after Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008. These families lived along the coast that was flooded for months. Eventually, they moved a little further inland. That’s when the school began, when children needed a safe place to learn amid all the chaos in their lives. It took some time, but eventually, Mr. Arya earned the trust of his community. Parents no longer worry about what their children are doing from 8am to 4pm every day. They know they are safe from idleness, from traffickers, AND they are expanding their knowledge of the world, learning English, and having a really good time.

Perhaps the greatest testimony to the impact Mr. Arya has on his students is that after they graduate, they come back to visit. His school only goes through 5th grade, but the families and students stay connected for years. Mr. Arya’s greatest desire for his students is that they become good citizens of their community. He wants them to learn character and practice compassion so that their people and their community will be transformed for the next generation.

After a cup of chai and chocolate-filled cookies, you’ll say goodbye. Your heart will hurt a little bit because you fell in love with the little ones singing their ABCs and counting to 100. You lost a little bit of yourself as you danced the sillies out with them! You’ll take a little bit of their smiles with you, treasuring every sight and sound and smell deep in your heart. And you’ll hope that every child, every teacher, and Mr. Arya, know just how special they are.

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Stories are real, all names and photos have been changed for protection, and are representative.