1997: in Motihari, Bihar, India, one of the poorest, most populated and backward parts of India, Sr. Mary Crescence, a Catholic nun of the order of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, needed help to fund her dream of a free evening school, using borrowed space after hours, to educate those children too poor to access formal education. Following a chance meeting in Calcutta, Englishman Mark Bloomfield, a volunteer with Mother Teresa, provided Sr. Crescence funds to start the first school. For three years, both financial and moral support came from Mark. In 2000, Australian Dr. Robert Coenraads also became involved after visiting the school with Mark. (Read Robert's story here.) Their joint help ensured the development of two schools and a very successful model. "School-on-a-shoestring" provided basic literacy skills to impoverished but bright and enthusiastic village children. Thanks to an introduction by Mark's Australian friend Kathleen Swadling to Canadian Sue Tennant, Mark brought the challenge to Canada to replicate the model in both Bihar and among Hill Tribes in Northern Thailand.
[Left] 2000: Mark Bloomfield and Robert Coenraads in Motihari
[Right] Sr. Crescence with Dr. Robert Coenraads in 2000
2005: The FreeSchools World Literacy Charity (FSWL) was founded in Canada by Sue Tennant to raise funds and spread awareness. Exploitation of illiterate peoples by landowners, human trafficking, HIV proliferation and cultural subjugation of women were widespread in Asia but not well understood in the West.
2006: Mark Bloomfield toured with Sue Tennant and her friend Saskia Raevouri, from the United States, to see what had already been accomplished in less than a year: 26 FreeSchools in Bihar and 16 FreeSchools near Fang, Thailand. (Read Saskia's story here.)
2007: Sue Tennant, Saskia Raevouri and Dr. John Lange, a urologist from Arkansas, USA, traveled to Bihar. During this visit the Sisters arranged for Dr. Lange to hold a Medical Camp for Children at the Sacred Heart convent in Sugauli that specializes in handicapped children. Dr. Lange was so inspired by this experience, in which he examined hundreds of young patients suffering from the usual childhood ailments as well as the effects of poor hygiene and flood-related conditions, that he planned to return to organize a fully-equipped mobile medical unit to diagnose and treat illness in the outlying villages and take time from his practice to make regular visits to Bihar. (Read Saskia's account here.)
2008: ISPCK (Indian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge), the largest Delhi-based Christian publishing company, founded in 1698, with offices throughout Asia, already involved in education and social outreach, became the Managing Partner of FreeSchools in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.
[Left] 2006: Saskia Raevouri, Sue Tennant and Mark Bloomfield with Sr. Crescence and other sisters in Bihar.
[Right] 2007: At the ISPCK headquarters in Delhi. Sue Tennant, Dr. John Lange, Ella Sonawane, Saskia Raevouri and Rev. Dr. Ashish Amos
2008: The Mirror Foundation, the second largest Thai charity in Thailand, specializing in indigenous rights, became the Managing Partner of the Thai FreeSchools, increasing volunteers and bringing needed resources.
2009: Australian FreeSchools supporter Judy Townsend and her daughter Jo Townsend accompanied Sue Tennant on a visit to the Thai schools. (Click here for Jo Townsend's YouTube report for Australia's Channel 9 News. You can also read Judy's testimony here. TO COME)
2009: Geri Johnson, from the USA, visited Bihar with Sue Tennant for the first time. (Read Geri's story here.)
2010: FSWL-USA and FSWL-AU were incorporated as independent but coordinate charities to share the mission and broaden the donor base.
2010: Geri Johnson, now president of FSWL-USA, took over coordination with Sr. Crescence, funding and management of the Bihar FreeSchools. Canada remained responsible for the Thai and ISPCK FreeSchools. Australia funded both on a best-efforts basis.
[Left] 2007: Saskia Raevouri, Sue Tennant and Dr. John Lange with SSH sisters and convent staff in Patna. [Right] 2010: Visitor Linda Praamsma, Dr. John Lange, Saskia Raevouri, Sr. Crescence, Geri Johnson and visitor Margaret Yeo, among others.
2010: Saskia Raevouri raised funds to build the Bridge Course dormitory, to house an accelerated residential school (safe within the grounds of the Bettiah SSH convent) for bright and promising girls selected and tested from the village FreeSchools. In March 2010 she visited Bettiah together with Geri Johnson, Dr. John Lange, and visitors Margaret Yeo from Singapore and Linda Praamsma from USA, for the opening ceremonies. (Read Saskia's story here.) Working annually with Sr. Crescence and other sisters, Saskia continues to raise funds for scholarships, capital improvements, and special needs.
2011: Geri Johnson and Dr. John Lange brought Bruce and Beth Wenger from Arizona and Margaret Yeo and Michael Medved from Singapore to Bihar. (Read Geri's account here.)
[Left] 2011: Sr. Crescence, Margaret Yeo, Bruce and Beth Wenger, Michael Medved. Not pictured: Geri Johnson and John Lange
[Right] 2012: Sue Tennant, Sr. Crescence and Eef Hoedemakerrs.
2012: Eef Hoedemaker from Vancouver traveled to Thailand and India with Sue Tennant and became the only other person to visit all the FreeSchools and to be acquainted with members of the FSWL-AU board.
2012: Saskia Raevouri and her cousin Els Schep from Amsterdam traveled to Bettiah to meet the Bridge Course girls and tour the FreeSchools. Read Saskia's account, Four Magical Days in Bihar.
2013: FSWL-CA and ISPCK built the Riverside FreeSchool, the first flagship FreeSchool in Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, with a live-in principal, which has established the reputation as the area's best academic school and "caring community" in a previously Muslim/Hindu divide.
[Left] 2015: Saskia Raevouri and visitor Els Schep (rear) with Bridge Course girls past and present
[Right] 2015: Saskia Raevouri and Geri Johnson at the opening ceremony for the inauguration of the new Ellen White building addition
2015: Geri Johnson and Saskia Raevouri went to Bettiah for the opening of the Ellen White addition to the Bridge Course building.
2016: Geri Johnson arranged a meeting between the Bihar teachers and the ISPCK-Ghaziabad teachers (23 in all) in Delhi, and for all the FreeSchools teachers to attend a literacy workshop conducted by Pratham Books.
2016: Sue Tennant and Dr. Robert Coenraads traveled to Delhi for strategic planning meetings with ISPCK. Geri, Sue and Robert (together with Robert’s 18-year-old daughter Francheska) visited Sr. Crescence in Bihar, showing a complete circle of cooperation and support.
2013 to present: Downsizing, emphasizing quality over quantity. Ambitious plans are in the works to offer high-quality volunteer/internship programs that combine guided tours to India and Thailand with hands-on introduction to FreeSchools and the best in tourism. In addition, together with ISPCK, we are proposing to build a new FreeSchool further east from Ghaziabad, one that can serve as a model of excellence to meet the needs of the children of migrant labourers who live in "tents" made from tarps and plastic, without running water.
[Left] 2016: A meeting between the Bihar and ISPCK-Ghaziabad teachers in Delhi
[Right] 2016: Geri Johnson, Sr. Emma, Sr. Crescence, Sue Tennant, Francheska Coenraads, and Dr. Robert Coenraads at St. Mary's convent in Motihari, where it all began