Poonam Khatoon, a sixteen-year-old girl in northern India, demonstrated her karate moves for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Sunday, May 6th, 2012. Mrs. Clinton was taking part in a meeting with the leaders of nine non-profit organizations working to end sex trafficking, moderated by Ruchira Gupta, founder of one of the programs, Apne Aap (“self help” in Hindi). Secretary Clinton promised her support for the cause, but she didn’t realize that Ms. Khatoon and her friends already receive the help of Mrs. Clinton’s neighbors in Westchester, NY.
The daughter of a woman working in prostitution, Ms. Khatoon takes her karate lessons in an Apne Aap program that is sponsored by a charitable group called KEEP (short for Katonah Education Exchange Program) based in Katonah, a village in the town of Bedford, home to the Clintons. “KEEP is a huge part of keeping Poonam and her friends at the hostel in karate,” explains Lindsey Swedick, who works in the New York office of Apne Aap and coordinates the interaction with the Katonah charitable group.
KEEP is a community effort spearheaded by seven Katonah moms: Ruthie Rosenberg, Cynthia Braun, Elizabeth McGoldrick, Celeste Crosby, Sioban Keane, Jeanne Cass, and Elena Rover. Inspired when their book club read Half the Sky, the friends selected Apne Aap from among the many worthy causes featuring women who have helped themselves and others despite overwhelming challenges.
KEEP sponsors 130 girls from 13 girls groups based out of three community centers run by Apne Aap in Forbesganj, Uttari Rampur, and Babuan, in the Araria District in the Indian state of Bihar—. These girls are at risk for being sold into the sex trade or born into a part of the Untouchable caste, in families that traditionally engage in intergenerational prostitution.
In addition to underwriting karate, KEEP funds support tutoring, English-language instruction, and other non-formal education such as sewing and self-advocacy skills for girls ages 10 to 16. Ms. Rosenberg, who manages much of the team’s daily operations, traveled to India and witnessed the positive impact that Apne Aap’s work is having on vulnerable communities. She helped shape the KEEP agenda, which provides marketable skills, teaches the girls about their rights, and fosters the confidence to break out of the “family business.”
Wanting to do more than raise money, KEEP also runs a penpal exchange. It began with mother-daughter pairs here, a dedicated corps of New York based Hindi translators, and the girls in Bihar. On the American side, the correspondence has expanded to include a sixth-grade class at the Wooster School in Danbury, CT, and the teens in the Smart Girls after-school program at the Boys & Girls Club in Mt. Kisco, NY.
On May 1, the KEEP founders, supporters, and their friends celebrated the group’s first year accomplishments—raising $11,875 and exchanging 100 penpal letters. The event also served as the kickoff for the second year’s efforts, raising funds through new members and the sale of $10 note cards that sponsor a Bihar girl for one month. The highlight of the evening was when Ms. Swedick shared an email about the penpal program written by Soumya Pratheek, an Apne Aap officer in Bihar and KEEP’s contact in India. She wrote: “I have seen the joy and excitement in the eyes of the girls when they get these letters. They feel very happy and honoured when they realise that there are people who have not even seen them but respect their emotions, their culture and want to know about them. For them it boosts up their self confidence and I have seen this in them. So, on behalf of Apne Aap we thank the entire KEEP group.”
The evening’s festivities were hosted by KEEP co-founder Ms. Crosby, who also is part of the KEEP penpal program. Her correspondent: The very same Poonam Khatoon who confidently demonstrated her karate skills for Mrs. Clinton, causing Madam Secretary to remark: “I agree with the approach of Apne Aap to invest in marginalized girls in small communities.”
Ms. Khatoon came away with a strong impression as well. “Men generally think women are useless,” she said. “But look at her. She has so many bodyguards, and most of them are men. All men must think of women as important, and that they are able to do important things.”
Concluding her visit on Sunday, Mrs. Clinton told Ms. Gupta: “I am totally your cheerleader. Continue what you are doing and I’ll stand by you.”
Her neighbors in Katonah will KEEP helping too.