Hayden Hall Institute- A legacy of Compassion
Hayden Hall is a social purpose organization that was started in the year 1969 with a perspective to enable the then weaker sections of the society who were women and children for income generation, education and health.
Fr. Edgar Burns, a Canadian Jesuit started Hayden Hall, fifty years ago, as a center to expose students of an elite Jesuit school in Darjeeling to the realities of the communities around it. He started an evening college to serve local working youth who could not afford a college education.
The Landslides of 1968 changed the Darjeeling Hills forever leaving a trail of devastation. Fr. Burns realized that Hayden Hall had to play an important role in rebuilding Darjeeling after he was moved by the sight of a woman on the street carrying heavy loads along with her newborn. Hundreds of Houses were constructed and the focus shifted to adult literacy and empowering women financially. Hayden Hall thus opened its doors to migrants, tribals and tea garden labour who had no one else to turn to.
Before the Darjeeling District Government Hospital opened, Hayden Hall served as a hospital. Before the Government began thinking of policies for children’s development, a day care center for children of porters and manual labourers was set up at Hayden Hall. Thus, the three pillars- Health and Nutrition, Education and Vocational Guidance and Livelihood and Entrepreneurship evolved, finally coming together as our flagship intervention- The Integral Community Development Initiative, with a strong focus on sustainability.
Hayden Hall consistently responded to the needs of the vulnerable communities through a vast network of 48 education centers and 14 Community Development centers in the districts of Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Jalpaiguri, with a staff strength of 130 Community Development Workers and Volunteer Teachers, impacting over 5000+ families on a regular basis annually. The Institute has maintained a fine balance between, “giving someone a fish and teaching them how to fish” in the words of Mother Teresa. Our vision keeps us relevant and sustainable-A healthy, well-informed, self-reliant and self-transforming community.
After 50+ successful years of working with the communities of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, we have been able to impact the lives of many in ways we can neither conjure up in data nor can we count the number of people that have benefitted from our programs.
Today, the Hills are different, with ever-evolving needs, aspirations and dreams. Poverty and social power structures continue to hinder communities to realize their full potential. Our commitment to Human Development through love and service has never been more crucial to our mission. Hayden Hall’s legacy of compassion continues to live on.
FATHER EDGAR BURNS
Father Edgar Peter Burns, SJ, was born in Montreal, Canada in 1925 and since his father worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway he learned to adapt to changing surroundings very early in life, which stood him in good stead while adapting to India and to the Darjeeling Hills where he lived for over fifty years.
He was educated in a Jesuit School in Canada, where he was a good student and an enthusiastic ice hockey player. While at boarding school, waiting for the train, the boys witnessed a scene that would stay with Edgar for the rest of his life: It was about 40 degrees below zero and the boys were huddled around a cast-iron stove. A little girl of about twelve wearing a thin frock and scarf came in and begged for money for food and firewood. In the corner of the room was a man in a raccoon coat, drinking whisky from a bottle. When the little girl pulled at his sleeve, he exploded, “Begging at this hour of the night! I haven’t eaten for two days and you don’t see me begging!”; he shouted. The little girl handed him all the money she collected,” Here sir, there is an eating place that is open all night across the street. Please take
this.” This was too much for the half-drunken man. Crying he admitted that he was lying, he had
had plenty to eat and too much to drink. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills
and gave them all to the little girl. “Thank you, God!” she sang. ”God bless you and thank you.
Thank you, God!.”
Father Burns entered the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1943. Even while he was in the novitiate, his superiors recognized his ability to reach people and his effectiveness as a preacher. He arrived in India in early January 1952. His skill in sports, particularly boxing and hockey, helped him in his first post as a sub-prefect of the Upper Division of St Joseph School (North Point). Fr Burns learned to play cricket, edited a newsletter, preached student retreats, directed plays, led hiking trips, and coached North Point -Winnie football and boxing teams. He then went on to St Alphonsus High School, Kurseong, where he studied Nepali and learned to speak, read and write the language fluently. He also studied theology at St Mary’s Kurseong. From Kurseong, he came back to St Robert’s High School, Darjeeling where he taught English from 1960 until 1985.
Father Burns was very instrumental in getting houses built at Frymal Village, below Government College After the devastating landslides of 1968. Around the same time, there were Bangladeshi and Tibetan refugees who needed food, shelter, health care, and schooling. Working with the National Social Scheme (NSS), the Food for Work program, and St Joseph’s College students and teachers, Father Burns began to formulate what would become his integrated developmental dream -Hayden Hall.
Hayden Hall started as a drop-in center for St Joseph’s College students. The idea was to expose this somewhat more privileged group to the realities of community life and social work. Father Burns found an old building in the center of Darjeeling town and moved in with three St Joseph’s teachers. They ran an evening course for those whose day jobs prevented them from going to university; they held classes to prepare for the examinations and ran university courses as well. Nine people eventually received their Bachelor’s degrees through this program.
However, with the landslides, a devastating fire in Darjeeling, and the incoming refugees from Tibet and Bangladesh, the focus of the work began to change, and more medical programs, more nutrition programs, and other income-generating programs. He began to write a series of letters to the Canadian benefactors he had met over the course of the years, a tradition that continued almost right up to the year of his death. The letters were brilliant fund-raising vehicles: he informed his donors back home exactly where their dollars had been spent, and exactly what Hayden Hall and the Canadian donors were accomplishing together. He reminded his readers of what the scriptures had to say about helping those less fortunate and about how even a small donation can multiply and achieve greatness when it is joined with other small donations.
Even with such a profound vision, it took many years of dedicated service to accomplish so much. Both C.B. Rai and T.B. Chettri, colleagues of Father Burns at St Joseph’s College, would put in a full day’s work and then come to Hayden Hall for classes, social work, discussions, events, debates, until nearly midnight every night. It was an exciting time, filled with the encouragement and inspiration that Father Burns imparted to those around him.
He wrote letters to his people back in Canada asking them for support to develop the lives of the poor in Darjeeling and in his letters he spoke about refreshing stories and sometimes uncomfortable honest realities. One year, while touring Canada to raise funds and to speak about the Christ-crucifying experience of building a society based on justice, of changing structures, mindsets, values, and beliefs in the process, he could sense opposition, even hostility to what he said, “I began to realize why Christ’s public life lasted but three years.”
Father Burns would address our selfishness, our willingness to look the other way when confronted with poverty and illiteracy, and illness. Faith must be expressed in words and deeds, he exhorted his readers and the volunteers and staff who flocked to work with him.
The expansive and comprehensive development work went on until the first Gorkhaland Agitation in 1985. During this period it was difficult to go walking freely through the countryside, organizing village committees for literacy classes, and even the staff that had been trained to do this work went on to other employment. Father Burns spent half of one of those difficult years in Canada, meeting benefactors and showing slides and telling stories of the work in Darjeeling. Hayden Hall continued with Father Burns at the helm and his faithful staff carrying on. It was also in the early 90s that Father Burns came to write his most critical passages about how the poor are neglected.” Let us not spend this Lent with the soldiers on Calvary.” he wrote in 1992, “rolling dice and gambling away the many opportunities of love through service” our Hayden Hall’s motto which is still embedded in every worker’s heart.
Father Burns was a charismatic person, a person who could rally support around him. “Clean Darjeeling project”, long back was a huge success because of his enthusiasm and energy. His students were so influenced by him that they would work for weeks just to support him in his social ventures. He wanted a place to develop human nature, especially a place for the needy and helpless. He died on MAY 17th 2010, but his legacy lives on till date and is sure to live on for a long time.