Keeping children at school with simple loving treats
Over the past decades, Asana Viebeke Lengkong has been traveling into the island’s most remote villages in Karangasem, such as Munti Gunung, Tianyar Tengah, Ban, as well as the villages of the neighboring Nusa Penida island, most of which initially were accessible only by dirt paths.
She comes with one simple intention only: to see the ecstatic faces of the children as they are “wowed” with a bag full of exercise books, drawing books, pens, pencils, erasers, sharpeners, a set of rulers, uniforms, shoes, as well as weekly extra meals of milk, eggs and vitamins.
The contents of the goody bags might be insignificant to most privileged children growing up in a big city, but for the village kids these are the very reason they stay at school.
As a little girl raised in a privileged and unorthodox non-Balinese family, Viebeke first encountered the other side of the economy when she was only five living in her parents luxury home in Surabaya, East Java. In 1972, when she was a teenager, Viebeke was adopted into banjar (neighborhood organization) Pande Mas in Kuta, Badung regency, where she became fluent in Balinese and a distinguished member of the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak Community Forum with her deep comprehension of Balinese culture and lives.
Since 2003, Viebeke has devoted herself to being one of the founders and program directors of the I’m An Angel philanthropic works, which she co-funds with the island’s non-Balinese and expatriate business tycoons.
Despite her endless privileges, Viebeke has never ceased rolling up her sleeves to get down and dirty for I’m An Angel charity work, which includes the interrelated funding support to improve education, mother and children’s health, nutrition, economy empowerment through microfinancing and building rainwater harvesting facilities (cubang), as well as environmental awareness.
A successful build-and-design property businesswoman herself, Viebeke, shared her views, her concerns and her work pride with the Bali Daily’s Agnes Winarti, who went along on a day trip to Dusun Dalem, Tianyar Tengah, Karangasem regency, recently.
Question: What was the personal experience that motivated you to concentrate on philanthropy?
Answer: I have been a privileged little girl. When I was five, I lived in a home in Surabaya, a big home, but from my bedroom window I could see the slums, where children with bloated tummies lived without clothes. In my eyes, they were just plain dirty. Once, I took lots of candies in my pockets and I approached them out of curiosity. I asked: One plus one equals how many? They answered two. Then, I shared my candies. I befriended them. I lost interest in hanging out with my well-off friends, who always carried handkerchiefs made in the Netherlands and England. I always waited to meet these slum children on my birthdays. I think they are more interesting.
How did the I’m An Angel works start?
In 2003, a sum of Rp 170 million (US$18,020) was collected for charity. We went to Munti Gunung village in Tianyar Barat, Karangasem. The gepeng [beggar] children in Badung were notorious for originating from this village, which had about 900 poor families. In 2004, we went straight to the core of the poverty problem: basic education. About 50 percent of the funding we generated was spent on this. We gave away school packages of stationery, additional nutrition consisting of boiled eggs, vitamin B complex and milk, and scholarships for the children of the poorest families to study at elementary school. There were two elementary schools at the time, 175 students in each school, 40 students in each school were scholarship recipients. We also pushed the community to ask their local administration to build an SMP Satu Atap for the graduates to continue to junior high level. Now, the junior high school has its own building. In 2007, we move forward to other villages in the area with the same entry points: education and healthcare.
However, basically, we are not taking over what is supposed to be the government’s duty. We’re only supporting basic needs and empowering the people, so they know how to reach the government’s programs that are intended for them.
How many villages has I’m an Angel reached?
More than 100 villages in Karangasem and all over Bali, including the villages of Munti Gunung, Ban, Tianyar Tengah, Seraya Timur, Seraya Barat and Seraya Tengah, as well as the Tanglad, Sekar Taji and Batu Kandik villages on the neighboring island, Nusa Penida.
What are the challenges to finally bringing improvement to your targeted villages?
Ignorance from the community, as well as ignorance and incompetence from the government. The government officials don’t reach out to these remote and poverty-stricken villages, where villagers are still struggling with basic needs, such as wasting six hours a day just to get a bucket of clean water on foot. Officials can’t just work behind their desks, they have to actively reach out to these villagers because they are not going to come into your offices. When we traced back to our past works in Munti Gunung village, regretfully, we found many of the students had dropped out. Their parents simply don’t see the benefits of education. For example, the first grade started with 50 kids, but as they reached sixth grade, only 17 kids were left. To make them stay at school requires persistence and tremendous effort, which often is not supported by their own illiterate parents.
When the government initially launched the BOS [Bantuan Operasional Sekolah — School Operational Assistance] funding scheme in remote villages such as Munti Gunung, it did not launch it with sufficient introduction of what to do with the money. Thus, the teachers in Munti Gunung bought computers for their schools, despite the fact that they had no electricity yet.
What’s the greatest impact of I’m An Angel programs so far that you are most proud of?
The nutrition program at school, because it not only improves the physical fitness of the kids, but also improves their intelligence. Building 1,000 schools won’t do anything if these kids do not have the intelligence to absorb the lessons taught in the class. How can you educate these children, when they come to schools with empty tummies? Because of the poverty, these kids have been malnourished since they were still in the womb. From the nutrition program, we can see results within the first three months, as they gain more weight and have more energy to attend classes compared to before. We provide the extra nutrition four times a month. This is actually a very expensive program, but it’s very effective. This year, we are reaching out to around 1,000 children to get better nutrition within the period of one semester to one-to-two years, according to their condition. Every kid gets an allocation of Rp 10,000 per month.
What drives you to continue such works that seem to be endless and tiring?
I consider them as part of my family. I simply love people, although sometimes I hate their attitudes. These people come from all walks of life, the poor and the extra rich, all fascinate me. Imagine how poor people can keep on living despite their unprivileged conditions. These people won’t say that they need help. We have to sit with them and listen. The poor need help, but the extra rich also need help to know what to do with their money. I’m just facilitating both sides. I feel that visiting these villagers, meeting their smelly children, who maybe only take a bath once a week, is very exciting, so I enjoy every moment of my trips.
Your most memorable experience when interacting with the villagers?
There are plenty. I remember in one village, called Palak, I bathed 60 kids all at once in the cubang. We scrubbed all the dirt off. I saw nits coming out of their hair, worms from their infected wounds. I bought them nit combs and disinfectant soap. The foreigner who came with me was shocked, I immediately gave him nail clippers so he could start helping clipping the children’s nails. After bathing and brushing their teeth, I told these children: “Now you can come and kiss me.” And they all kissed me. These are poor people, yet they are so alive.