"I believe the biggest impact we have had on the children of these forgotten villages is the exposure that we have given them, the dreams and aspirations that we have inspired, and most of all, the feeling that they are equal in every way to children elsewhere in the world.”
Sujata Sahu, also known as the Iron Lady of Ladakh, is transforming the status of public schools in one of the most isolated regions of India – Ladakh. Through her organization, 17,000 ft Foundation, Sahu has successfully established libraries in 230 schools and playgrounds in 140 schools in Kargil and Leh.
In 2010, this computer science teacher at a school in New Delhi, ventured on a solo trek trip to Ladakh. On the third day, when Sahu was experiencing difficulty in breathing and walking due to low oxygen in the high altitude, she decided to stop by for rest. Two individuals helped her get to a village close by. During her stay in the remote village, Sahu visited two primary schools – the two trekkers who had helped her get to this village were teachers at one of these schools. They had been walking to get textbooks and uniforms for the handful of students in the school. It was the determination of students and teachers who were willing to travel in extreme weather conditions that pushed Sahu to establish 17,000 ft Foundation. “I believe the biggest impact we have had on the children of these forgotten villages is the exposure that we have given them, the dreams and aspirations that we have inspired, and most of all, the feeling that they are equal in every way to children elsewhere in the world.”
Hundreds of tiny scattered hamlets make up the beautiful landscape of Ladakh. A majority of these settlements live in isolation with minimal to no contact with the outside world. “Most of the villages we work in have never been visited by outsiders and the only visitors they have had have been our team of facilitators and volunteers,” Sahu mentions, further adding, “We never realized how much of a difference our visits made until one day, when one of our sponsors was questioning a student from a remote village.” The sponsor asked the student about his village but for Sahu the inspiring moment arrived when upon asking “who goes to your village,” the student replied, “17,000 ft foundation.” “We have had so many defining moments in our seven years and each one gives us the confidence and assurance of the impact that we are trying to make.”
Students, teachers and families, all go to extreme ends to sustain the education system in these regions. Teachers and students brave harsh weather conditions everyday and village communities band together to setup school spaces. “17000 ft was able to set up 104 playgrounds across 65,000 sq. km. of harsh mountain terrain in just under two months thanks to their efforts,” Sahu adds.
In order to run operation and provide the services that they do, 17000 ft Foundation relies heavily on volunteers and corporate donations. When the project was initiated, harnessing support from the corporate sector was the biggest challenge for the foundation. Sahu explains that over 90 per cent of contributions come from individuals in India. “Most of the support we have received has originated from individuals who have visited Ladakh and understand the challenges faced by the people of this region.”
With the support from various segments of society, 17,000 ft Foundation has been able to sustain support to over 230 villages of Ladakh, a majority of them remote and inaccessible. The isolation of these villages is the biggest challenge that deters corporates from participating in the programme. To address this issue, the foundation has been encouraging Employee Volunteering in corporate offices.
Despite the challenges, Sahu has been able to generate interest and awareness in her foundation through consistent efforts. Apart from their work in the education sector – setting up of libraries in 230 schools, playgrounds in 134 schools and solarization and digitization of 105 schools so far – the foundation has been able to instantiate the communities faith in education. “Our focus has always been to draw attention to these remote villages and help them get the support they need, therefore visiting these villages multiple times a year is a mandate for 17000 ft.,” Sahu says and adds, “The local administration has been very supportive of our programs and are trying to replicate them across the districts, which means more development in the villages.” Learn more about 17,000 ft Foundation at 17000ft.org.