For those who live in or visit Chennai, Kovalam is a quick but serene getaway. Its clean beaches and calm landscapes offer the best relaxation one can ask for. Alfredo and Elena Cuomo visited Kovalam in 1999, probably for the same reason, but they did not return to the city after a weekend. They stayed on — built a dormitory for kids who did not have a place to stay, renovated their school and planted the seeds of the Cuomo Foundation.
It has been 20 years and the organisation started by the couple has helped numerous children from disadvantaged sections of the society to rise up against all odds and succeed in the field of their choice. They recently built the first recognised 'green' school for underprivileged children in Mambakkam, near Chennai. "The Amala Annai Higher Secondary School was made with eco-friendly material and has 21 classrooms which are naturally ventilated. We have enough room to accommodate 800 students," said Charles Kulandai, the foundation's representative and Project Manager in India. "We want the kids to understand the issues not just from the books but also practically, right in front of their eyes," added Elena Cuomo, the Founding President of the Monaco-based organisation founded in 2001. Elena took over the reins completely after her husband's death in 2009.
The organisation's primary motive has evolved over the years, feels Francisco Diaz Lison, the CEO of the Cuomo Foundation. "When it all started the primary objective was to provide them (the students) with a roof over their heads — to give them basic education, classrooms that were not falling apart. Two decades have passed and things have changed. We have a roof that will provide shelter, classrooms, teachers and basic education. So now we need to focus on more intricate details like climate change and to make the students aware of their surroundings and how it is changing," he added.
"Climate change is something we all are worried about and need to take a bold step forward if we want to survive," said Peter Hungerbühler, a board member. The green school concept was born from this thought but the Amala Annai Higher Secondary School is not just that. "We want to give these kids the international school set up that generally, only the elite enjoy. Even though we will continue to teach the prescribed state board curriculum, we want the kids to be exposed to a world of possibilities," said Elena. "I do not like to plan things for people. I prefer to listen to what the person needs and let them assess what is best for them. It is very important that you understand what is important for that particular demography," she added.
The foundation also provides scholarship to help promising students achieve their full potential. The Alfredo Cuomo Scholarship, initiated in 2004 in Kovalam's St Joseph's Higher Secondary School, now has 571 scholars who have availed it — 436 have graduated and are pursuing careers in various fields. "We started the scholarship because we know, from our experience, how important a fellowship or a scholarship can be. I would not be here if not for a scholarship. My husband was a Fulbright Scholar himself. You need that push to be able to achieve something," said Elena. The foundation also started a scholarship for girls who topped their Class X board exams from their respective schools. Named the Elena Cuomo Scholarship, it provides financial support for their college education. The Alfredo Cuomo Scholarship, on the other hand, gives a total of Rs 40,000 every year of their college.
The students mostly prefer engineering, computer science, nursing and commerce courses but Elena does not seem to be very happy with that. "I want my kids to venture into disciplines like film-making or journalism or photography. We need to give them the exposure that they need to understand why these professions too, are lucrative. That will be our way forward," said Elena.