Vandana Shastri, is highly popular with children who have finished their schooling and those who are currently enrolled at Awantika Vidya Bhawan, a nursery and KGI to 12 school being run at Samardha villge near Mandideep at the outskirts of Bhopal, the capital of the Central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh.
Awantika Vidya Bhawan imparts formal education to poor children in villages 30 km from the State capital.
This model school was set up by Vandana and her Italian husband late Benvenuto Franco Tondo about twenty years ago with the sole objective of providing quality education to school children. Franco was a much respected resident of Tolmezzo in Italy, where he had founded the famous hotel, bar and restaurant “Al Benvenuto” in 1969. Franco constructed the entire double story building of Awantika Vidya Bhawan with his own hands using the prefabricated construction technology. In fact, he was a pioneer in transferring this technology to Bhopal and was also instrumental in the setting up of a prefrabricated construction factory at Mandideep Industrial Area. The entire plant and machinery for this factory was imported from Italy.
Vandana has named the school at samardha after her mother, late Awantika Shastri, who was a trailblazer when it came to social service and helping the needy and the downtrodden. In the later ’50s and ’60s of the last Century, there was hardly anyone in Bhopal, who was not aware of the monumental work Awantika Shastri had been doing for the cause of the deprived, needy and also for the benefit of the refugees from Sindh, now in Pakistan, and for the cause of Hindi. But for her efforts, the Hindi Bhawan in Bhopal, which is a famous landmark, would never have seen the light of day.
Vandana, who is now suffering from Cancer and has undergone multiple surgery and dozens of rounds of chemotherapy, continues to donate every lira or rupee, which she could save, invest or spend on herself, on running the school, a cause so dear and close to her heart. Realizing that the village children were coming to school empty stomach, she made it a point that all of them were served nutritous meals in school and this practice continued for years. She even purchased a new school bus to ensure the students from far off villages could tavel to school in comfort and free of cost. Once when the school kids were being taken to the Van Vihar National Park in Bhopal, a distance of less then 30 kms, many of them said that it was the first time they were heading for the city. Some of them shared their unlimited excitement stating that never before had they gone beyond their village.
Awantika Vidya Bhawan is run by the Awanti Rehabilitation Programmes and Action Networking (ARPAN) Society, an NGO based in Bhopal, MP. The school imparts formal education to 500 students from twelve villages within a 12 mile radius. The school Students are from poor families and are mostly the children of farmers and laborers. Most of these children would otherwise not attend school, as the local government schools are in poor condition and their families cannot afford private schools.
California based NGO, Asha is currently funding the teachers at the school. Previously ASHA has funded teachers, supplies, and petrol for the bus that brings the students to school.
Vandana was earlier associated with Delhi Council for Child Welfare. From Delhi to Italy, life’s journey has gone full circle. Now, if not in Delhi or Bangalore for treatment, Vandana dvotes her full time to Awantika Vidya Bhawan and the village children. She deserves a Padma Award..
Such a noble soul! And now she’s gone. I have no doubt her work with poor rural children will forever preserve her memory, and her legacy will survive. Rest in Peace, Vandana!