The Learning Tea: An Uncommon Education

On the back patio or Dr. Bombay’s tea house, Katrell Christie talks about her first trip to India. Sipping hot tea beneath the strings of bulb lights, the world of poverty and crime that she describes doesn’t seem quite real. In addition to owning and operating the eclectic Candler Park tea shop, Christie also heads up the Learning Tea, a non-profit organization with a mission to sponsor bright, young Indian women in the Darjeeling region to attend higher learning institutions.

The Darjeeling region, located on the border between Bhutan and Nepal, is infamous for cross-border sex trafficking. The children of working poor families, particularly those who have been either orphaned or abandoned, are often sold into the sex trade or domestic servitude. With little or no financial resources, these kids are left with few options for pursuing education beyond grade school. And in India, where women are still treated as second class citizens in many aspects of society, young girls are particularly effected by this disparity.

The proprietor of Dr. Bombay’s says that she was initially persuaded to take a trip to India by a local member of the rotary club. Attracted to that organization’s lack of political or religious affiliation, Christie’s initial involvement landed her on a three month long volunteer trip to the Hardee region of southern India. She spent much of that first visit working with an organization that sought to teach women craft oriented trades with the intent of empowering them to be financially independent–not an easy feat in a country where the caste system is still actively employed to keep both women and the working poor at a continued disadvantage in established society. After seeing what Katrell described as devastating poverty–older orphans actively working in the sex trade to support younger siblings, thousands of sick and dying farm laborers huddled together in train stations with no access to medical treatment and nowhere to go, bright young women whose best prospect in life would be to become a tea harvesters–she decided to dedicate her efforts fully to making a difference in the lives of the people she met there. Realizing the financial impact relatively trivial amounts of money could have if applied toward the right ends, Katrell returned to Atlanta to found The Learning Tea, a non-profit organization with the purpose of supporting and sponsoring the young women from the lower caste of working Indian farmers.

“When I realized that I could save a life for roughly the same amount of money I was spending on cigarettes here in America, it really put things in perspective,” says Katrell. She adds that she’s since quit smoking.

For the last four years, The Learning Tea has been sponsoring women ages 18 to 23 who want to attend upper grades or university. The program began with Christie’s promise to provide housing and living stipends for three women she met on her initial trip to India. The program has since grown to include eleven more women, currently housed in a dorm-like community in the town of Darjeeling. And while Katrell has been able to see some of these candidates transition from orphanage to the most prestigious learning institution in the area, she acknowledges that her efforts still fall short of addressing the whole problem in the region.

“It’s just hard because I know that when I go back this time, I’ll have to turn people away,” Katrell says in regards to her upcoming trip.

Dr. Bombay’s is a community-oriented business located on McClendon Avenue near Little Five Points. Katrell raises money for The Learning Tea through the tea shop’s sale of Darjeeling tea, donated used books (available for only $1!) and monthly Indian dinner nights put on by the shop. She says that she has also been lucky enough to receive donated sky miles to finance her annual trips to the region. And while Christie has aspirations to expand the reach of The Learning Tea, helping more women in the Darjeeling region as well as reaching out to women in other locations like Calcutta, without the means to finance these measures, they’re nothing more than good intentions. While a generous team of legal volunteers have been working to get The Learning Tea classified as a S1C3 and seek federal grants to support their work, the organization is currently staffed by volunteers and interns and funded entirely by the community support of Candler park residents and customers of Dr. Bombay’s.

To find out more about The Learning Tea, you can visit the website or stop by the shop in person. For information about upcoming Indian dinner nights refer to The Learning Tea’s facebook page where you can also find more information about ongoing fundraisers, the Darjeeling region and program participants.

Photo Credit: The Learning Tea