| Jason (left) and his friend David with the students in the school. Picture by Suman Tamang
Dooteriah Tea Garden, Sept. 19: Hannah Foster wanted to become a doctor, but a lurking rapist stopped her one evening, violated her young body and then strangled her.
The murdered British teenager’s unfulfilled dream, however, lives on — in a tiny school with tin walls in faraway Darjeeling.
For Jason Lepcha, the man behind the school, it’s a tribute to the memory of the slain 17-year-old.
Lepcha and a dozen others had three years ago helped police track down Maninder Pal Singh Kohli, the main suspect, who fled to India after the March 2003 rape and murder in Southampton and was hiding in Darjeeling.
All of them were rewarded by Hannah’s parents Trevor and Hillary, who came to India to pursue their daughter’s alleged killer. Lepcha set up the school with the money he got in December 2005.
“I received a reward of Rs 3.67 lakh and thought the best way to utilise the money was by building a school in my native place, Dooteriah, in Hannah’s memory,” says the 30-something Lepcha, who has always believed that he “should do something to make a difference to the poor”.
Hannah Memorial Academy started with a few students at Shanti gaon in the tea garden, about 21km from Darjeeling, last year but was formally opened on February 18 this year. Lepcha’s family members decided to donate land that belonged to their grandfather, who was a doctor in the garden.
“I spent Rs 98,000 to construct the structure of the school which now has Classes I to IV,” says Lepcha, who has a four-year-old kid.
The school, which provides free education, including textbooks, has 67 students. “I have urged parents to send their children to the school, which is free, and am expecting student strength to be about 150 next year,” he says. “I will slowly but steadily upgrade the school till Class VIII.”
Trevor and Hillary have come to know about the school, though Lepcha hasn’t told them a word about his efforts.
Lepcha is also setting up a library and a computer centre.
The English-medium school has six teachers. Lepcha had been paying their monthly salary of Rs 3,000 but the money now comes from the UK.
“In April, two UK tourists, Christein and Roger, who heard about the school paid a visit. They later wrote back saying they had decided to sponsor the entire salary of the teachers and also sent free text and exercise books for students,” Lepcha says.
The two are even paying for the education of 17 economically backward students studying in different schools in Darjeeling. Earlier, Lepcha had been paying for their school expenses which came to about Rs 2,700 a year per student.
It is learnt that the duo collect donations from friends back in England.
As Lepcha’s travel business takes up much of his time, a relative, Andrew Paul Shyodhi, a retired forest officer from Bhutan, runs the school with the help of well wishers like David Lepcha, a friend.
“The school has been set up for a noble cause and I will ensure that the students are provided with the best education,” Shyodhi says.
Maybe it’s a coincidence, but one student, Priyanka Tamang, wants to be a doctor.
The Class III girl hasn’t heard about Hannah’s dream, though.