Lessons in trust and teamwork for PA athletes in India
Fifteen members of Phillips Academy’s boys’ and girls’ basketball teams left Boston for Chennai, India’s fourth largest city, on Friday, Nov. 20, anticipating there would be unforeseen challenges ahead: logistical ones, emotional ones, intellectual ones. Challenge is part of Andover’s service-learning program known as Niswarth (Hindi for non sibi) Hoops. But never could the group have anticipated one particular challenge that awaited them on Wednesday, Dec. 2, as they were set to fly back home.
The below video, developed by Lani Silversides—girls’ varsity basketball coach and one of the program leaders—is a poignant, spirited account of the inaugural Niswarth Hoops trip to Chennai. The overview that follows is largely based upon the participants’ blog, as summarized by the Phillips Academy Newsroom. Student remarks appeared in the Phillipian’s latest coverage of the trip.
The Niswarth Hoops students prepared for their journey beforehand. They agreed to a set of three principals—gratitude, humility and teamwork—a figurative lens through which they’d try to perceive their experience. Through teaching Indian children how to play basketball, they hoped to learn more about the role of sports and play within a student’s education, the culture and its people, and themselves—their assumptions about society and their role in it. Before leaving PA, they conducted a 48-hour fundraiser, raising some $2,000 to buy new books as gifts for the children they would meet. Their program leaders included faculty members Rajesh Mundra, Niswarth program founder and assistant dean of students and residential life; Lani Silversides, girls’ varsity basketball coach and instructor in mathematics, statistics, and computer science; and Terrell Ivory ’00, boys’ varsity basketball coach and assistant director of admission.
Upon arrival in Chennai, they hit the ground running, visiting the St. Louis School for deaf and blind children. That day, the facility was operating without electricity due to area power outages, but according to the group’s blog no amount of darkness could diminish the children’s joy at meeting their American guests. After a rudimentary lesson in sign language, the Niswarth group talked with the children, their signing supplemented with lip reading and writing words on paper. Students then split into two groups, with the blind children playing various circle games with basketballs and the deaf children playing pickup.
“We interacted with children in many different environments to promote ideas of teamwork, community, leadership, focus and fun through sport,” said Mundra. “In doing so, we supported students who had attended basketball campus and were implementing lessons learned to their classroom education.”
Later, they visited Chennai’s HIV hospital, which in addition to providing medical care offers patients psychological care and financial assistance. They visited various schools run by the NGO Teach For India, including one where they and a group of Indian students listened to the song “Imagine” by John Lennon and then together worked to deconstruct its meaning. At another school, they met a classroom of children who, lacking desks and chairs, learned their lessons while sitting on the floor—a wet floor. PA students noted that the young scholars seemed as enthusiastic about their lessons as those from the finest school. Throughout their stay, the Niswarth group lead discussions and clinics that followed up on the summer basketball camps organized by Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy and hosted by the American International School of Chennai.
“My favorite experience would definitely be going to the government schools each morning. I just loved meeting all of the younger kids. The government schools didn’t have many resources but just to see all of the kids happy and eager to learn was a joyful experience,” said Teagan Cayla ’18.
Toward the end of their journey, sudden torrential rains—totally unexpected at this time of the year—led to massive floods in areas of Tamil Nadu. On Wednesday, December 2, the group arrived at Chennai International Airport for their return flight to Boston. They quickly learned they would not be leaving anytime soon.
Chennai, reeling from a record 11 inches of rainfall in just 12 hours, was experiencing its largest and deadliest flood in 100 years. More than 1.8 million people were displaced and nearly 300 died, according to the Red Cross. The area was declared a disaster zone by the Indian government, which deployed its military for emergency relief operations. Thousands of people, among them the Niswarth Hoops group, found themselves stranded at the Chennai airport with limited food, little access to clean water, and eventually no electricity.
“The downpour… was insane. When we were driving to the airport, we saw people getting off their motorcycle and pushing it along the road because the water was up so much and they couldn’t drive anymore,” said Bailey Colon ’18.
Despite spotty cell phone coverage and no Internet, the group did its best to communicate with their families and the PA community back in the States. They played a lot of cards and, to relieve stress and stay fit, they ran basketball drills and team plays at the airport. They also wrote reflections about the experience. After a harrowing 52 hours, the Niswarth Hoops contingent was able to board a bus to the Bengaluru airport in Bangalore, 220 miles to the west. From there, they finally flew back to Boston, arriving back to campus at 8 a.m. on Monday, Dec 7.
After the PA community was made aware that their classmates were back safe and sound, the campus breathed a collective sigh of relief. Later that day, Head of School John Palfrey, Dean of Students Jenny Elliott, and three students—Akhil Rajan ’17 and previous Niswarth participants Arzu Singh ’16 and Mihika Sridhar ’16—wrote an all-school e-mail asking the Andover community to keep the millions still being impacted by the disaster in their thoughts and providing a gofundme.com link for making donations to Chennai relief efforts. In addition, Hairspray, the student theatre production that ran recently (with one of its main cast members still in India) held a benefit performance. All proceeds were directed to Chennai relief efforts.