July 2021
Update from Sylvia Holder, Founder Trustee
Hello to all our Supporters,

After all the doom and gloom of the past 16 months I’m very happy to be starting this newsletter with some good news, very good news.

The obvious difference is that one of the pictures includes a lot of happy students and the other, sadly, has none (not for much longer we hope) but there’s another – study the Tamil writing and you’ll notice they’re not the same. The first one says Kovalam Government High School, the other Kovalam Government Higher Secondary School. I’m delighted to be giving you this very exciting news as our promotion means that we can now teach standards XI and XII, the equivalent of our sixth forms or Years 12 and 13, so students can stay with us for all their higher education. We’ll no longer need to pay for our sponsored children to finish their schooling at St.Joseph’s.

It’s been a long haul but the indefatigable JR has stuck to the task, no one knowing better than he the quagmire of bureaucratic and political obstacles to overcome. Even the private fee paying school and a beneficiary of endless support from us with money for fees, university scholarships, books etc. tried to put a spanner in the works, fearful that their students would transfer to us. They had good reasons for concern as many students have come over to us and we’ll also be welcoming lots of children from close-by villages.  What a difference a couple more classes makes! The High School already had a very good reputation but the stumbling block for some would-be students was the disruption it would cause having to change schools at such a crucial point in their education. Applications for admissions have been flooding in and when our new look school re-opens we’ll have 600 students, more than double our previous numbers.
So, yet again, it’s bricks and mortar time as we need to build more classrooms on to the wings at each side of the school, make changes to existing rooms, and provide more science labs. We’ll be getting a new headmaster/mistress and nine more teachers.  VMT needs to buy another school bus to transport children living in outlying villages. 

Understandably, there is some confusion with our supporters over our role in Government schools. The Government owns the land of both the Primary and Higher Secondary Schools, is responsible for the schools curricula and their quota of teachers but is happy for us to increase the number and calibre of teachers and take a leading role in the schools’ facilities and day-to-day activities. The Trust designed the High School and the cost of building was split 50/50 between us.  The Government provides the bare basics, we come up with important extras - specialist teachers, extra computers, uniforms, English audio visual lab, sports equipment (and the land for the sports ground at the Primary School), school bus, well equipped science lab, 5500 book library, snooker tables, cricket nets and bowling machine. Maintenance also seems to fall to our lot as otherwise there wouldn’t be any! The Government schools I’ve visited are strangers to a paint brush and their sports grounds are overgrown and unusable for any sports. 
Update on COVID
Back to Covid. Kovalam went through a very grim time when one in ten adults had it, there were no hospital beds, shortage of oxygen, no vaccine and patients had to travel the five mile journey to Kelambakkam by bus and then mingle with hundreds of others at the crowded hospital to buy medicine. Inevitably, the virus was spreading like wildfire. There is a hospital in Kovalam but it’s very small with virtually no waiting room. Luckily, the owner of adjacent land gave us permission to set up a large shady waiting room area with chairs suitably spaced so medicine could be bought at the hospital pharmacies and the Trust paid for those who couldn’t afford it themselves. This made a big difference to the infection rate which has now come right down in Kovalam but numbers are going up again in the state, Tamil Nadu. We need to be very diligent to keep Kovalam safe.

There’s been a desperate need for food. Lockdown means no work and without the paltry incomes families survive on, the situation is very grim. Many people have lost their jobs. The Trust has been – and is – handing out bags of rice and curry ingredients to the needy. JR and Ali have been dressed in the full PPE gear looking as though they’re about to take off for the moon - but it’s a very sensible safeguard. A very hot one I’m told in 35 degree temperatures.
None of the life-saving help we have been - and are - giving would have been possible without the help of our generous supporters. We also had a big response to our appeal for laptops for our university students which has meant that instead of having to struggle to keep up with their online tuition on a mobile phone, every one of them now has a laptop.  It has made a huge difference and they are very grateful.

There is still a serious vaccine shortage. JR and Ali have just had their second jabs, much to my relief as they are around the village a lot. Aarthi is waiting for a special vaccine she needs because of health problems.

We long to see some joyful life back in both our schools and the chatter and laughter of our sponsored children in the JR Community Hall on Sunday mornings. My fellow UK trustees and I are also longing for the green light from India and the UK for us to be able to travel there. So far I’ve missed out on three trips and the hoped-for September date appears to be a no-go. I miss my second home very much. Meanwhile, thank goodness for Zoom and Whatsapp which enable JR and me to have lengthy discussions and texts.
The University Club
There is a chasm between life in the village of Kovalam and life in the city of Chennai but that is what our new graduates must quickly adjust to when they take that leap to follow their career paths.

In the UK, university colleges offer a range of social and cultural activities for their students and even if they live in villages there are clubs to join and an array of activities on offer. Colleges under the wing of the University of Madras offer little or no campus life and there is nowhere for them to get together in Kovalam. It’s usual for the students, particularly the girls, to go straight home after college where they have to study in cramped and often very noisy (TVs at maximum decibels!) one roomed houses.  There is little opportunity for them to enjoy new experiences to broaden their ideas and skills and gain confidence for the professional lives ahead of them. 

Hence the need for the Venkat Trust University Club for our 85 undergraduates and post graduates. We have CIM Investment Management and The Peter Cundill Foundation to thank for the comfortably furnished, large air-conditioned Club room providing laptops, daily newspapers, board games and  a fridge for drinks and snacks. There’s a television and DVD player to show films, documentaries, history programmes etc. It’s been set up on the ever-elastic upper floor of the JR Community Hall - along with our offices, English audio visual lab, library, model railway room and music room. 

The Club opened to much acclaim but then had to close because of lockdown. From the short time it was open, we could see that the laptop area is very popular, as are board games and just relaxing in cool comfort on the sofas and chairs to read the newspapers - and chat. When it’s open again we’ll be introducing specific topics of conversation to broaden the students’ interest in local and world affairs, set up a debating society and invite speakers to talk on a variety of subjects. There’ll also be regular cultural and leisure excursions such as museums and art galleries in Chennai, sporting events, restaurant outings and movies at a leisure centre. As all our sponsored students come from very poor homes, many of them will never have been in a cinema before or had a meal in a restaurant.    

The various activities on offer and the chance to mingle and exchange ideas with their peers should reveal hidden skills and give the students the confidence they need to bridge the gap between village life and the workplace in Chennai. 

The benefits – and the pure enjoyment of such a facility as the Club – are already enhanced by the valuable voluntary help we have had from Cognizant, the multi-national technology company. It has been helping our final year students with their CVs and how to handle job interviews which dovetail well into our programme.
This and That
This newsletter is much later than usual because information on Covid has taken precedence and there’s been nothing going on to report. The schools and colleges remain firmly closed but we hope for good news before too long. Our poor children have had virtually no face-to-face schooling and have had to manage with educational programmes on the Government television channel for many a long month. University colleges have been open for short spells but have been closed down for some time now. All their tuition is now online with their teachers.

At least I’ve been able to give you some good news today and I plan to send another newsletter in November when I hope the Covid situation will be a lot better. At least we’ll be busy converting our erstwhile high school into a magnificent higher secondary school. Please start feeding your piggy banks!

With very best wishes and, as ever, thanks for your loyal support,


Sylvia Holder
Founder Trustee
Venkat Trust
The Venkat Trust is a registered charity No.1104363
The Venkat Trust, 12 Westbourne Gardens, Hove BN3 5PP
Tel: 01273 719362
UK Trustees: Sylvia Holder, Lindsay Swan, Sarah Da Silva, Nick Goslett, John Whelan
Kovalam Trustees: Janakiraman (JR), M. Ali