Sternberg Active Life Award
Date Posted: 29.12.2012
A former PR executive who swapped her retirement on the Sussex coast for a school in one of India’s poorest districts is this year’s winner of The Times/Sternberg Active Life award.
Sylvia Holder, 74, has overhauled a dilapidated primary school in the fishing village of Kovalam, on the Arabian Sea, improved another and helped to create a 1000-pupil high school.
By her own admission, the enterprise was entirely by chance.
Ms Holder met Venkat, a boy from the village, when she was there on a work assignment. After showing her around, he asked if she would give him £10 to cover his school fees for the following year.
“I willingly parted with the cash then, on the spur of the moment, said he could come to me for anything to do with his education. I really thought I would never hear from him again. But in the end I put him through high school and university,” she said.
After Venkat graduated he worked as an Italian interpreter, travelling to a job in Qatar to help to support his family. He came back to Kovalam in Tamil Nadu and was thinking about moving to Bombay where he had a second interview for a job. Then, at the age of 27 with a bright future before him, he was killed in a road accident.
“It was terrible. He was my surrogate son I suppose. I decided to go back to the village to do something in his memory. I had in mind a TV set for the village.
“A couple of friends came out with me and we went to look at the local primary school. It was horrifying, appalling. All the buildings were falling down. The classes were held outside in the boiling heat with no shade. The teaching was terrible. There was not a stick of furniture in the whole place. I asked the head what would help and that’s how it started.”
Now the Panchayat Union Middle School has qualified staff, buildings, books, computers and a sports ground. Pupils who attend get three sets of school uniform each year.
The Venkat Memorial Trust also helps the fee-paying Catholic school nearby, which tries to take as many of the local fishermen’s children as it can manage. There are also four university scholarships awarded each year.
“Then the village decided it wanted a high school, so we are going out to open that next month,” said Ms Holder, who raises the money, usually in the form of donations from the public, while Venkat’s brother, JR, runs the day-to-day operation on the ground.
She says that she has few words of wisdom about using retirement gainfully.
“I wish I could say that I wanted to give something back but I’m afraid it didn’t feel like that. It just happened. But looking back I would have been bored silly doing macramé all day,” she said. “However, I would say that to give someone an education is to give them the way out of poverty, the only way out really.”
Ms Holder is the fifth winner of the award, which was set up by the philanthropist Sir Sigmund Sternberg, founder of the Three Faiths Forum, and aims to recognise the dedication of those over the age of 70 in their work for good causes and their outstanding contributions to society.
The £10,000 prize money is split between the winner, who will receive £5,000, and £1,000 for each of the five runners-up.
This year’s runners-up are John Beavis, 72, a former Commando Forces surgeon who set up the Ideals charity to help victims of man-made and natural disasters; Patricia Bernie, a former journalist and benefactor; Charles Clarke, 88, a retired air commodore and President of the RAF ex-PoW Association; Professor Ivan Roitt, 85, a scientist; and Simon Webley, research director at the Institute of Business Ethics. The prizes will be awarded in the spring.
Source : The Times, December 28th 2012