Compassion: A Family Affair
Betsy McCoy '77 transforms lives through education
by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson
July 19, 2013
Betsy McCoy '77 poses with two Dalit gypsy girls who attended a Communities Rising summer camp.
When Betsy McCoy ‘77’s high-school-aged son asked for permission
to take a volunteer trip to India, McCoy eagerly consented. A former Bologna
study-abroad student, McCoy knew that intercultural experiences educate and
sometimes, transform. But she had no
idea just how transformative that trip would be—for her son, Matthew; the
entire family; and for a host of children in need.
In the years since, five of McCoy’s six children have traveled
between McCoy’s home base in Camp Hill to help desperately poor children and
families in southern India. And McCoy has founded Communities Rising (CR),
a nonprofit organization that provides educational and enrichment programs to
the region’s Dalit children, those born into the least-advantaged group in the
Indian caste system.
The most valuable
McCoy began her work as a part-time volunteer with an NGO
that served Dalit families in India’s Villupuram District, where most live on
less than $1.25 a day. After several years of volunteering part-time, she noted
that a lack of basic resources comprised only part of the barrier to a better
life for these villagers. They were educationally impoverished as well.
“All of wealthy kids in India go to English medium schools,
where classes are taught in English and where they learn computer skills,
because higher-education entrance and good jobs require English skills. But the
kids in the villages are taught in the native language, Tamil, and have no
access to computers,” McCoy explains. “They don’t have the resources, and they
don’t have enough people in the area who have these skills.”
Speaking with Indian friends who were fellow volunteers, she
reasoned that the best way to help was through education. So in 2009 McCoy
rounded up teachers to provide after-school programs in English, math and
socialization skills for fourth- and fifth-graders and a new NGO was born,
headed up by a board of directors that includes her son, Matthew.
One of CR’s core early accomplishments was the construction
of the region’s first primary school computer lab, beginning with just seven donated
computers and a building that had to be wired for electricity. Because the rest of the village remains low-tech, the standard protective systems are not in place, and the lab's power cuts out regularly. But
that doesn’t diminish the children’s joy when they get their first chance to
use a computer, she says.
“The lab is easily the most valuable room in the village,
and the look on the children’s faces when they first see it is incredible,”
McCoy says. “And before long, they are using Word and Paint and making videos.”
Swimming and robotics
Two more computer labs have since been built, and today, CR
employs 22 staff members, most as part-time teachers; provides opportunities
for student internships and volunteers; and serves approximately 1,600 children
each year, with a special emphasis on programs for girls. CR also offers
summer-enrichment camps, where children—most of whom had never before ventured
outside of their villages—can learn about computers, digital photography, art
and even robotics.
There also are camps for Dalit children who face additional
social challenges, such as gypsies and the disabled, who typically do not
attend school and are considered outcasts even in Dalit society. CR works with medical
professionals to provide basic health services when needed. And at the only
pool in the region, children learn to swim as part of a new program developed to curb drowning incidents, the leading cause of childhood
deaths in the area.
It's all part of a growing curriculum that shows no signs of slowing, as McCoy, who led
the organization on a part-time basis while maintaining a law practice in
Pennsylvania, has recently retired from law to work full-time as CR’s CEO, dividing
her time equally between the U.S. and India. She is currently partnering with
Engineers Without Borders to construct a sanitation system with hopes of
completing it sometime next year and welcomes interns and volunteers who wish
to pitch in.
Students, adults and families may also volunteer to help with the
after-school program throughout the school year, and student volunteers from
America and India—including high-school and college students who graduated from
the CR program—work as CR camp counselors, offering real-life inspiration for
their charges. This summer the latter group included four members of Dickinson’s class of 2015.
“There’s a lot more we want to do, a lot of projects in the
air, and more to come,” McCoy asserts. “The need is so great, so profound.”
View photos and video of Dickinson students who worked with McCoy in India.