One Woman’s Quest to Erase Poverty in India

India Currents | Feb 1, 2017

Valentine’s Day is almost here! Newspapers and magazines are awash with stories about romantic getaways and spots for dinner dates. Flower sellers and chocolate makers are working overtime to fulfill orders. We, on the other hand, are choosing to showcase a different kind of love. A love for a land and a people. In our cover story, we celebrate people who were transformed by their love for India. How their dreams became inextricably linked with a country whose spirit bewitched and drew them in. What is indeed the idea that is India?

Like a whirlpool that draws people from the periphery inside, it continues to draw people inward: Kattrell Christie operates a center for young women in Darjeeling, from the place where she buys her tea for her Atlanta tea shop…

India was the farthest thing from Katrell Christie’s mind in 2007 when the former roller derby competitor and art buyer purchased a tea shop in her hometown of Atlanta. She christened the shop Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party simply because she liked the whimsical sound of it. Less than two years later, India was foremost in her mind.

Katrell and the girls

During an impulsive trip to India suggested by a customer, her organization, The Learning Tea was born and became a life-changing program for several young women in India and Christie herself.

Call her an activist or call her a hero. Christie most likely will say she’s just doing what she loves. She’s a bundle of American can-do resourcefulness and focused passion, and when the two energies combined to empower girls in India, the fusion became the manifestation of Tagore’s words that guide Christie’s life:

I slept and dreamt that life was joy
I awoke and saw that life was service
I acted and behold, service was joy.

Poverty Fuels the Plan
On that first trip, Christie experienced poverty that is, as she described it, “poor in a way that most Americans can’t even imagine”. She—who by American standards grew up poor—vowed to give back, and a chain of events propelled her onward.

While stringing pearls with women in Hyderabad, she learned of a young woman whose father beat her. Christie decided that whatever she did, she would help a girl with a father who might keep her from achieving her potential. When Christie volunteered at a school, she was disturbed to see toddlers going hungry and families that were simply too poor to feed them. Feeling compelled to make a difference, she built raised garden boxes designed to provide lunch and a sustainable food source for the school.

Christie then visited Darjeeling, the place where she sourced tea for her business. The lengthy trek allowed her to think, and by the time she arrived she had determined that she would involve her tea shop, her community, and the tea itself in her work in India. While there, she visited a local Buddhist orphanage from which girls had to leave when they turned 17, and her plans solidified.

Focusing on three girls who would soon be forced out of the orphanage, she listened to their hopes, and their dreams. Those three girls, and their bleak futures compelled Christie to act: The Learning Tea project began.

Christie is honest, down-to-earth, and involved. Armed with those three attributes, she accomplished what others might call “crazy.” Instead of walking away from the girls she strode forward, setting them up in a house with things they would need. She promised to return in six months.

True to her word, Christie returned after fundraising and scraping by at home. The girls unsurprised when she showed up because they trusted her, gave her the name “Tiger Heart” because, they said, she is “fierce and will pounce” but she is “also protective” and has yellow hair.

During the spring of 2016, Christie returned to India on one of her bi-annual trips, and took four girls on a nine-day trek across India via train. In November 2016, she used part of her trip to lay the groundwork for a Learning Tea center in Chennai that will take two years to complete and be ready for new students.

When asked how these trips have changed her view of India, she responded in typical Christie fashion: positively. “I’ve been coming here for eight years, sometimes for three weeks, sometimes three months,” Christie said. “My mantra for India is “the more I go, the less I know.” Every time I think I have this place figured out, it laughs in my face and teaches me a new lesson. I love India because I’m always learning here.”

The program that began with three girls has expanded because of Christie and others who have donated time, money, and effort —including traveling to India with Christie to help the program. In total, there have been 15 young women so far who are or have been in The Learning Tea program. Five have graduated college, two currently are in Master’s programs, and two have become teachers. Others are moving on to government jobs.

Education is the Key
The Learning Tea is more than food, clothes, and shelter for the girls in the program, the goal of which has been to fill the gap in young women’s lives when they need help getting into college and finding a career. Acceptance into the program hinges on agreement to certain rules. The girls must volunteer up to fifteen hours a month, depending upon their school schedule. They may choose tasks as varied as assisting elderly and indigent residents, caring for animals at farms, or tutoring children. The reason for this requirement? “It seems really obvious to me that what you put out there you get back in return,” Christie said. “People overlook the amount of pleasure you get from giving.”

The girls also must earn passing grades and marriage is out of the question while in the program. The Learning Tea ladies, as Christie calls them, come from different backgrounds, and focusing on education is the principal reason behind the program. “Education is freedom in the world,” Christie emphasized, “but in India, it can mean the difference between life and death.”

Christie’s can-do attitude is engaging and infectious, allowing her to laugh at herself and the situations she encounters, but there’s no question that she’s deadly serious about her cause. “I just try to keep my eye on the prize, which for me is seeing the ladies graduate, get jobs, and become self-sufficient women. Things get tough sometimes, but there is always someone else that is having a rougher time. You just have to look on the sunny side.”

Christie realizes that she’s working with a handful of girls in one isolated town, and she understands she can’t make others care about this program as much as she does. Nevertheless, she continues what her heart and passion drive her to do.

“This hasn’t just been lollipops and ice cream cones,” Christie said. “You’re going to fail sometimes, that’s only human. It’s the getting back up until you get it right that counts.”

She has learned many lessons over the years and offers them without bravado in her book, Tiger Heart. She easily expresses her love for India, its culture, and its people, and she isn’t shy about saying how much she loves the girls who are her family. With this project, however, there’s always one challenge that lingers. “The toughest challenge for me is running a business (in Atlanta) and a project on the other side of the world,” she explained. “But one thing depends on the other to survive.”

“I’m just a regular person trying the best I can,” she continued. “Yes, I make mistakes, and I have failures, but you can’t succeed unless you try. If everyone can do something, no matter how big or small, just commit to doing one kind act, we all might live in a very different world.”

Tiger Heart: My unexpected adventures to make a difference in Darjeeling by Katrell Christie with Shannon McCaffrey is available as paperback, e-book, and as an Audible book.

§   §   §

This article is a part of India Currents Magazine‘s February 2017 cover story: My Love Story with India.

Jeanne E. Fredriksen lives in North Carolina, where she is the managing editor of a monthly newspaper and is a Books for Youth reviewer for Booklist magazine, a publication of the American Library Association.