MIDDLEBURY – Henrita Toppo’s home in East India is over 11,000 kilometers and a world away from Middlebury, Vermont.
“In my village, girls can’t go out after 5pm because it gets dark, and girls don’t have the freedom to walk wherever they want,” she said, through an interpreter, after arriving here late last month. “Besides, I can’t go out and travel. If I do that, the boys harass me in the streets.”
Toppo is one of five young women who came to Middlebury from Jharkhand, India, on June 22, on a three-week trip to learn English, public speaking and self-defense at Middlebury College. Fundamentally, they’re also playing a lot of field hockey while they’re here.
The young women, ages 16 to 19, were selected as the top five field hockey players from two field hockey fields that Middlebury College field hockey coach Katharine DeLorenzo led in 2018 and 2020 in the city. from Ranchi. This is the capital of Jharkhand, a state in eastern India with a population of nearly 33 million people.
“We’re working hard to help them simply imagine what the world has in store for them,” said DeLorenzo.
Shakti Vahini, an aid organization dedicated to strengthening the rights of women and children in India, recruited the girls in 2018 on the outskirts of Jharkhand, a state that struggles with extreme poverty and has been a hub for human trafficking, forced labor and marriage. childish.
Jharkhand is also a hotspot for field hockey, India’s national sport, with many of the national team’s players hailing from the region, including Nikki Pradhan, one of the country’s most popular players.
When the first camp started, the girls knew only that it was a field hockey camp and knew nothing about the broader goals of the program.
This was because Baishaki Taylor, then Vice President of Student Affairs at Middlebury College, had a connection to the consulate in Kolkatta (formerly Calcutta). In 2018, she met with a representative there who was looking for women to lead a project to teach field hockey to girls in eastern India.
Taylor sought out DeLorenzo, who has won four field hockey national championships in Middlebury. She, in turn, recruited some Middlebury field hockey alumni as well as her assistant coach Rachel Paumbo to go to Ranchi and lead a field hockey camp.
Camp took place in November 2018 and January 2020 for about a week at a time. More than 100 youths lived in a dormitory, arrived at the field to train at 7 am and did not return to the dormitory until dusk. After practicing field hockey fundamentals with Middlebury players and coaches, Shakti Vahini sponsors complemented the program by educating young women about human trafficking. The 2020 camp also included students from Middlebury College as part of the J Term Bold Scholar program, in which a group of students taught English at an elementary school.
The program is currently funded by Shakti Vahini and the US Department of State’s Sports Diplomacy program, but in the future, the goal is for Middlebury College to deepen its involvement and funding so the program continues the camps.
Paumbo described that first trip to Ranchi as “life changing”.
“My main thing is gratitude for the opportunity to share the project and use hockey to bridge cultures, pay attention to women and try to empower them and inspire confidence, which is so much fun,” she said. .
PLAYERS WITHOUT SHOES
Anna Kenyon, who played field hockey for Middlebury College and graduated in 2016, is also one of the program’s leaders. She and Paumbo described the first time they went to Ranchi and found that many of the young women had no shoes, and all their pinnies (lightweight shirts used in sports games to differentiate between teams) had the same number.
“Logistically, we were going a million miles an hour from 5am to 11pm, just doing everything we could to create something out of nothing. And anything we asked for, someone would find a way to make it work,” Kenyon said.
They managed to come back with more resources on the second trip. It was also significant for the people there that the same people from the first trip came back.
Kenyon described asking a translator how to say “girl power”; after a pause, she learned that she was “nari shakti”. She then made the girls huddle together, and on the count of three, they all shouted, “Nari shakti!”
“It’s kind of impossible to describe how incredible it was to hear these young women scream ‘girl power,’” Kenyon said. “They shouldn’t talk, they shouldn’t feel powerful. This is really not allowed for them, as far as our partners at Shakti Vahini have told us. This concept of women empowerment is quite strange.”
There is a lot of social support for field hockey in Jharkhand, making it a useful tool for empowerment, according to Kenyon.
Kenyon described the constant energy of young Indian women, including singing in the car on the way home after playing field hockey.
“Hockey is absolutely their favorite thing, and you can tell,” she said.
And they will do anything to be able to play.
“When I was selected to play field hockey, I had no stick to play with. My mother said we didn’t have the money to buy it. I used my school’s funding to get a hockey stick. I didn’t have the money to go to the field to play, so I bought a bike with great difficulty,” said Priyanka Kumari
The visit marks the first time these women have left their villages. Kenyon described a remarkable curiosity around learning English and meeting new people, accompanied by the challenges of homesickness and difficulty with language and food.
“Village women, any woman has to wear fully covered clothes. I had a culture shock because here in the US people use everything,” said Toppo.
The young women are accompanied by Subhashni Kant, the East India Hockey Project’s lead translator, and Surabhi Shivpuri, the East India Hockey Program’s escort and bailiff. While here, they will have 10 days of intensive English training given for two hours a day.
They are also taking self-defense courses with Marcus Kim and working with Middlebury’s public speaking department to develop public speaking and public speaking skills.
As for field hockey, there is daily work of running, lifting and field hockey skills. They are participating in the “Game On” field hockey league in greater Burlington at UVM and St. Michael’s College.
Young women are also getting a broader taste of American society and culture. They toured the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier on July 5 with former state lawmaker Albert Perry, who represented Richford in the capital but now resides in Middlebury. They will also take a trip to Boston on July 8 to see a Red Sox-Yankees baseball game, courtesy of Red Sox President Sam Kennedy.
They will conclude the trip in Washington, DC, as guests of Patti Hoffman, former US consul general in Calcutta, India, and David Kennedy, former employee of the US Embassy in New Delhi.
The young field hockey players will leave for home on July 12.
Paumbo said selecting the five women who could come to Vermont was difficult, but they were limited to a small number. And the goal is for these young women to come back and make an impact in their communities.
Kenyon and Paumbo recognized that they could not make big changes alone, but could instead make changes through young women sharing what they learned with their communities.
“We need them,” Paumbo said.
Through Kant, all the young women expressed their gratitude for being here and their excitement to return home to urge everyone they know – and everyone they don’t know – to go to the hockey field so they can get along and learn English.
“I hope there will be even more coaches (from other colleges) like Katharine in the future,” Purnima Neti said.
Juhi Kumari added, “I hope that even more people can do this and do it even better than me in the future.”