Nestled among mango trees in Bangalore, India, Asha Kiran School is a place of hope and stability for hundreds of children with special needs and
their families. Begun nearly 20 years ago in the home of a young teacher with just one student, Asha Kiran now offers a full complement of special education services and represents the faith, hope, and love of Rita James, longtime UPC ministry partner.
A soft-spoken woman with a ready smile, Rita grew up in Delhi, the youngest of three children in a close, loving family. “I grew up in a Hindu household,” she says, “surrounded by love and prayer.” Her earliest memories include the practice of observing certain rituals relentlessly—reciting portions of Hindu scriptures before pictures of gods and goddesses, burning incense before idols and taking part in sacred worship at the temple. Performing endless good works in an effort to please a god who seemed very far away was a mainstay of Rita’s life.
As a young adult, she got a job at a Christian school. “In India, that doesn’t mean that all of the employees are Christian,” she explains. “It just means that the management is. We were required to participate in daily prayer, singing, and Bible teaching. I didn’t like it, but it was part of the job, so I went. Then one day, Mr. Williams, the principal, told us we could talk to God. His words seemed very foolish to me because I knew that God was far, far away.” But hearing the message was a turning point for Rita. She began to listen more carefully, ask questions, and read the Bible. In 1981, she became a Christian.
Mr. Williams and his wife remained an important part of Rita’s life, and through them she met and married Prem James, currently the South Asia Area Director for Partners International. When asked about Prem, Rita laughs. “We had nothing in common except Christ. He was from the south and I was from the north. He’s tall, I’m short. But we have a very good marriage.”
So why Asha Kiran? Jesus said, “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40).
In India, the need to serve children with disabilities is huge. While government regulations for special education continue to evolve, the system is sorely lacking for many, especially for girls. It’s still common in rural areas for students with special needs not to attend school at all. Even in Bangalore with its sophisticated education system, these students often drop out early and simply sit at home. Yet in India, as in the United States, a solid education opens doors and helps level the playing field for individuals with special needs—something Rita recognized early.
Soon after college, a close friend asked Rita to work with her two-year-old hearing-impaired son, and as word of her work spread, others quickly brought their children to her. “But I was not prepared to work with them,” Rita recalls. “The need was really great, but Ididn’t have the training needed to provide help.”
That changed when Rita accompanied Prem to England while he attended Oxford. “Honestly, God opened a door,” says Rita. “I was able to attend a school nearby and received a Master’s degree in special education. That prepared me for work with a wide range of students.”
And so Asha Kiran was born—the perfect place to share her hope in Jesus Christ and her passion for children with special needs. In 1993 Rita began a school in her garage “and, we just continued to grow,” Rita explains. Asha Kiran literally means “ray of hope,” and that’s exactly what it is to current and former students. Here, children ages 4–18 begin each day with an assembly in which they exercise, sing, hear a Bible story, and pray. Learning plans are tailored to students’ specific needs, always with an eye to the future. Each child’s education plan helps ensure a productive life following graduation. Construction is currently underway on a girls’ dormitory and a vocational training center.
Rita graciously allows others to join in her ministry. Among those are Deputation teams from UPC’s University Ministries who live and work with Rita and Prem for eight weeks each summer. She delights in their ministry and in daily tea time where they share personal stories and pray with and for one another.
Rita James feels blessed to do be doing God’s work in this place, upheld by a worldwide family of those who pray for her, her staff, and the special children she serves.