GILFORD — With its cascading waterfalls, cool temperatures, and botanical gardens, those looking at the Lonely Planet Website would think Kodaikanal in the Tamil Nadu province of India is a paradise.
And it is, said Gilford High School senior Sally Tinkham, unless you're of the lower caste.
After three years of planning, Tinkham spent three weeks in Kodaikanal working with those considered lower caste as part of a mission sponsored by the Congregational Church of Laconia and Help Kids India.
Tinkham's mission was to work with a local teacher who was writing a children's book and teach her new techniques. She was accompanied by another young woman who is a graduate of Gordon College — a Christian College in Massachusetts.
"When I was in eighth grade, Anne Peck came from Health Kids India to talk to our church," she explained. "I started thinking it would be awesome to help and to go over and see for myself."
But in order to get school permission to leave school for three weeks in late January and early February of 2014, she not only had to complete a social studies project on women in India but take all of her Advanced Placement Courses in such a sequence that would ensure she didn't loose any of credits.
Tinkham began planning in 2011. She petitioned the administration for an independent study contract and, with the assistance of a social studies teacher, wrote a plan that would be acceptable to the school and her parents.
After her return, she presented a project on women's rights to her social studies class.
While Tinkham said she saw some extreme poverty and evidence of substantial of wife beating, she said she was amazed to see how upbeat they about life in general.
"During the day they are so positive and loving," she said. "And then sometimes they go home and their husbands come home drunk and beat them."
Tinkham said she didn't see too many men during her work day as most able-bodied men and boys of the lower castes are put to work, but said the women she was with were very loving and caring — especially the teachers in her school, most of whom were trained by similar programs like Health Kids India.
"They have the double stigma of being poor and being women," she said. "The richer kids are in school learning English and Hindi."
While India doesn't officially have a national language, most business and government is conducted in Hindi and English. In Kodaikanal, Tamil is the spoken language.
While strides have been made in the cities regarding the ages-old caste system in India, Tinkham said the caste system is very much alive in this small town in the mountains of India's southern-most province.
She said India's government is trying to broaden education especially in the lower castes but for most women, it often falls by the wayside.
In the villages and among the lower caste, it can be much earlier. Many parents send their children to work to earn money to help support the family.
Tinkham said in her three weeks she learned how important basic literacy is.
"In Kodaikanal, a thumb print is a signature," she said.
Tinkham said she plans on being a early education teacher though she hasn't decided where she wants to go to college.
When asked if she would return to Kodaikanal she said "Absolutely."
CAPTION: (Sally Tinkham) Gilford High School senior Sally Tinkham displays books of photography picturing Kodaikanal in southern India where she spend three weeks working as a teachers assistance and completing a project on women's rights. (Laconia Daily Sun photo/Gail Ober)