RASHMI OBEROI | 21 NOVEMBER, 2019
Winning Hearts And Minds
Peace through education
It is no easy feat to win hearts and in such a magnanimous way. Across the northeast of India, Colonel Christopher Rego with his strategy of WHAM (Winning Hearts and Minds) is a rare example of such benevolence. On his retirement in 2016 from the army, he has built Sunbird Trust, a non-denominational and humanistic organization, with sheer hard work and dedication. The Trust with its objective of “Peace through Education” now sponsors over three thousand children across Manipur, Nagaland, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh and is building schools and hostels in order to give these young students education and shelter.
A graduate from the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla and Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, Col. Rego was commissioned into the Corps of Army Engineers in 1984. Over three decades, until his retirement in January 2016, he handled varied appointments in the Army, serving across the length and breadth of the country. During his service, Col. Rego had two extended tenures, at Mizoram and Manipur serving on deputation with the Assam Rifles and the Border Roads Organisation. Seeing the plight of children from underprivileged families in conflict-affected states, Col. Rego and his wife Myrna decided to make a difference and began sponsoring education of children in 2004.
In his time in northeast India, Col. Rego realised that years of conflict, where it was prevalent and even though it has marginally improved, left a lasting impact on young boys and girls. Many could not access quality education due to poverty or remoteness from schools. They face a challenging conundrum of aspirations, ethnicities, identities and civil disturbance. Employment opportunities are limited and so quite a few end up getting radicalized.
In 2003–2006 when Col. Rego was posted with the Assam Rifles in Mizoram, he witnessed the lack of financial or physical access to education for underprivileged children in remote areas. Wanting to ‘be the difference’, his wife Myrna and he started sponsoring financially challenged youngsters through their own funds. Over time, many friends started to pitch in and help.
However, a pivotal moment for the couple came when the son of a vegetable seller in Mizoram, who was studying in Bengaluru, sought them out for financial assistance. This boy harboured dreams of studying in the United States and returning to help his community. The couple offered him an interest-free loan that he could pay back anytime. Getting admission into a college in Oregon, USA, the young man worked hard, earning through odd jobs while studying. A year later, his mother visited with a small pumpkin and a shawl that she had knitted, and all the money they had borrowed. Col. Rego had asked the boy then if the parents needed any more money, he refused but instead asked him to sponsor a friend of his studying in Bengaluru. When this student also returned his loan after getting a job in an IT company, Col. Rego and his wife felt that it was a waste to keep their money in the bank when it could help change lives. That is when they decided to expand their work to sponsor many more children, especially those in conflict-affected areas of Northeast India.
Andison Laishangbam, who is now a Head Chef working in Queensland, Australia recalls the financial help he got from the Regos in 2009 while studying hospitality management in Bengaluru. He had lost his father suddenly and would have given up his education. However, Col. Rego and his friends sprung to his aid and helped him and his sister finish college. He is forever grateful to them. Soon, there was another young student…and another. With the graduation of these youngsters and their successful employment, many others soon joined the informal Sunbird venture. Noting the obvious linkage between marginalization of the people and radicalization of youth, Col. Rego sought innovative ways to provide physical and financial access to education.
Over the next decade, he worked with different ethnic communities across the North Eastern states, understanding issues that impacted society and, in particular, children’s education. Col. Rego envisaged the important role of hostels in providing far flung communities with access to education. In 2014, he oversaw the construction of the first Sunbird Friendship Hostel at Ijeirong village, an abode that now houses 240 tribal children. The same year, he oversaw construction of a school near Singhat (Now called Lyzon Friendship School). At the core of every venture was ‘Friendship’, a principle that saw children of varied ethnic, cultural and religious backgrounds live and study together in mutual respect and harmony, supported by people from other parts of India. Using his own position, he was fortunate to receive the support of Government, Army and Assam Rifles organisation in this venture.
In Manipur, many government schools face challenges of functionality. Poverty and remoteness makes private schools and hostels inaccessible, especially to children of the subsistence farmers and hunter-gatherers. Children trek through harsh terrain to reach the nearest school. Col. Rego was personally moved to see how parents, determined to educate their children, kept children on rent with families near the school on a self-help basis. Some as young as six years old did their own cooking and managed.
In the beginning, Col. Rego faced a huge challenge with the fact that he was an army officer. People were wary in the remote villages and of course the danger in working there without protection. It was a leap of faith both for the people in the project areas and all of them at Sunbird when they were trusted and accepted! Col. Rego often joked with the local folks telling them that the assets created were for them and he could not possibly pack them up and cart them away on Air India if he chose to leave.
And it has been mutually rewarding. Sunbird earned their trust by working with children, Village Councils, Women’s Self-Help Groups and student organisations. Even though the remoteness of areas and lack of communication were hampering daily operations but in time, these were overcome with perseverance. The security situation, long break-in periods, remoteness and of course paucity of finances are limitations.
Having an enduring interest in social entrepreneurship, Col. Rego completed his MA in Public Administration while in service. In 2003, taking a sabbatical, he obtained his PGDBM from Xavier Institute of Management and Entrepreneurship, Bangalore. Before he retired, he asked to be posted to the North-eastern state of Manipur, much to the bafflement of the officer who was signing the order. To be deputed to Manipur was one thing, but to especially ask to go there was different. Col. Rego, however, was determined. And in early 2012, the Bengaluru native began the final stint of his Army career in the Border Roads Organisation in Manipur — a state for long in the throes of disturbance and conflict.
The growth of the initiative started by Col. Chris and Myrna Rego necessitated a formal identity and Sunbird Trust was registered in 2014. In 2016, post his retirement from the Army, he took over as the CEO of Sunbird Trust. The same year, he was awarded the prestigious International Ashoka Fellowship from South Asia for his innovative effort to bring peace to the north-eastern part of the country.
A multi-faceted personality, Col Rego is an author, traveller, pianist, nature enthusiast and amateur herpetologist. He has written three books including a travelogue on Kerala and “Cradle of Valour”, the history of the Bombay Engineer Group Centre at Khadki. His photographs of North East India have graced magazines like Discover India and Mizoram state calendars and tourism brochures. Col. Chris and Myrna Rego have also researched and documented the cuisine of Mizo tribes.
Sunbird Trust’s child sponsorship and hostel models are now impacting larger circles of people. Currently, the organization is sponsoring education of 3,100 children in five northeast Indian states. Among these are 35 undergraduate students studying Law, Engineering, Science and Humanities at Bangalore for who Col. Chris and Myrna Rego are de-facto foster parents. Sunbird also runs a basic “Egg a Day” nutrition scheme for over 750 children and is in the process of establishing 14 schools and hostels, in remote areas.
By the year 2025, the Trust plans to sponsor 25,000 underprivileged children and establish 50 institutions (schools or hostels). Col. Rego hopes that these 25,000 children, imbibed with Sunbird Trust values of humanism and fraternity, will each be an arrow for Peace in their communities.
Today, alumni of the Sunbird initiative include a super specialist doctor, a lawyer, an MBA and several other professionals. After more than a decade of hard work, many alumni are not only self-sufficient but pulling entire families out of poverty. Col. Rego attributes the rapid growth of the Sunbird initiative primarily to his 20 passionate and committed team members, all living and working in remote villages in Manipur. Most of these are in their twenties.
It all boils down to uniting people living in conflict-affected areas and empowering the next generation through education. For this understanding historical perspectives, day to day realities, aspirations and even angst of local people is critical. The Sunbird Trust Team, through their work of WHAM are already making a tangible impact on the lives of thousands of people. Similar initiatives would do wonders in numerous neglected parts of India that are crying for succour.