Mover, shaker aids Goa’s poorest kids

Stephen Young launched Starting Point, a school for destitute children in Indian tourist mecca

by Barbara Bayer

Stephen Young has always felt “driven to see the world” and left London at the age of 17 to do just that. He loves music, celebrates life and love and sees value, use, and often great potential in the world’s outcasts, whether they be unwanted appliances in Tokyo or street children in the slums of Goa.

Young traveled the world, starting in Europe, making his way along the overland hippie trail and arriving in India in 1976. Always ready to help others, Young volunteered in an infamous Kabul prison. He would bring food, hope and legal representation to young foreigners arrested, often on wrongful charges, and incarcerated amid horrendous conditions.

It was in Afghanistan in 1977 that Young met Maria, a fellow Brit and traveler who would become his wife. Young spent time in Syria, Jordan, Afghanistan and Pakistan and played and sang in a band with his younger brother in Venezuela and Egypt. After the birth of their son, Jono, the family continued to travel, eventually coming to Japan 22 years ago.

Here, Young is known by many members of the foreign community through Quoz, a moving and recycling service he runs based in Tokyo. In India, the 55-year-old Young is known through Starting Point, a school he founded in the southwestern state of Goa that gives children from among the area’s most destitute a better chance at survival and, often, their only chance at an education.

Quoz was officially started in 1995 but had sprung to life earlier after a friend gave Young, playing gigs in Yokohama at the time, a van to help him carry around his guitars. “People found out and started asking me to help them move things.”

The odd name was one Young found in a London history book. “It was a word that was only in circulation for one year at the end of the 19th century and it was shouted on the streets and scrawled on pub walls, kind of as a joke, and then it disappeared,” he says. Now, it’s the name foreigners in Tokyo most often turn to in last-minute frantic attempts to clear out their apartments before departing Japan.

“People will call and say, ‘Can you help us?’ and we’ll have two guys go get the stuff. We get it out of your house and you never have to think of it again,” Young says. “We’re not the cheapest, but we’re very good at the last minute. Our rates are competitive and we are offering far better service, all in English and with English understanding,” something customers are grateful for.

“We get people who say, ‘A Japanese company quoted us less’ and we go, ‘Fine, go with it.’ Two weeks later they’ll call us up and say, ‘Oh, ah, I think we’ve changed our minds,’ and want us to do it.”

The call of foreign lands and a desire to help others continued to resonate with Young. In 2004, a gift from a friend enabled him to lay the foundation for Starting Point. Located in the heart of Goa, the school is a haven and a springboard to opportunity for some 25 students, generally aged 3 to 7. The children come from among the many migrant workers drawn to Goa from the neighboring state of Karnataka in the hope of finding work.

“The families come across the border and build shacks out of leaves and mud and tarpaulins, move in and then the mother and father go in search of work,” Young explains. Those lucky enough to be picked by contractors as day laborers will slave on construction sites for no more than ¥100 a day.

“The children, from the tiniest baby, are left in the shack to fend totally for themselves,” he says. They take to the streets, often in search of food or to beg. “When the parents come home exhausted at night, the mother will make a meal. That is the only meal the family eats the entire day.

“These people are so low. They’re hungry all the time, exhausted from labor. They have no facilities to bathe, no toilet. They’re suffering a great deal. They don’t know what a birth certificate is. And the child mortality rate is so high that parents sometimes even get confused about which children survived and which ones didn’t.”

Enter Starting Point’s head teacher, Jane Lobo, a Goa native who speaks the language of the migrant workers. Lobo, whom Young says is “literally like an angel,” will go into the slums in search of children. “She will talk to parents and try to give them a vision of how it could help their family if the children got an education.”

Convincing the parents is often not an easy task. Neither is the initial work of getting a child used to a classroom environment. “When they first come to us they don’t even know how to comb their hair. They’ve never seen a toilet. One boy would cry when we’d wash his hands and then he ran away. We got him back two weeks later, but he came back only on condition we’d never wash his hands again,” Young says.

A little girl came to the school covered in boils and would “curse in the most foul language if something displeased her,” Young remembers. “The teacher had to keep her sitting on her lap all the time just to calm her down or she’d attack the other kids.” That girl went on to become a model student, as do many of the others.

Children at Starting Point, which is totally secular, are given medical checks and food. They attend classes from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., when they are given lunch. “The kids will come in on Monday morning and eat enormous plates of food because they didn’t eat all weekend because there was no work.”

Young says many of the better Indian schools at first refused to accept the slum children after they were ready to leave Starting Point. “Finally, we got two in and they did so well they went to the top of the class. Then, wealthy parents started going to those kids asking if they could help their children with their schoolwork. It’s unbelievable. These kids have enormous potential,” Young says. “Education for them is so novel. It’s like, ‘Wow, letters!’ “

Thanks to the school’s location, many foreign tourists visit and ask how they can help. “The tourists bring bags of gorgeous clothes so the kids look quite good,” Young explains. Starting Point has now been taken under the wing of a British charity offering to fund continuing education once the children are able to be assimilated into the Indian school system.

Not only Indian youths, but young Japanese as well have benefited from Young’s efforts. Ten years ago, he organized trips to India for Japanese teens.

“We took them to India with the purpose of trying to help them see that there’s another world outside Japan and to give them some excitement, some joy in living.

“The kids would come and work with us to raise money and when we had enough, we’d go off on a trip for a month or so. We’d go around the whole country by train.”

The group would visit various projects — homes for polio victims, homes for deaf children or for street children.

The trips proved a huge success. Some of the youngsters, Young says, wanted to and did stay longer. Others went back by themselves, including Chia, a young Japanese woman the Youngs took into their home years ago when her mother became seriously ill. All of them, Young says, came back “totally different.” The trips “changed their lives.”

Young, who has permanent residency in Japan, sees himself as likely to remain here, but he admits he isn’t always enraptured by the country or its society. “I find the place too mechanical, the people too spiritually dry. Sometimes I find it hard to live here, but on other days I really love it. I think, ‘This is great, crazy and wild and we’re doing something!’ “

Though Young is touched by the “delicate feeling,” “gentleness” and “beauty of spirit” he often finds in Japan, he is distressed by what he sees as a growing loss of “verve and inspiration among the general population” and by the high suicide rate.

“I think about the way people think here. It’s like they’re stuck in a rut and can’t get out of it.” He believes Japan is “killing its youth with its rules and laws” and after-school schedules crammed with yet more study and lessons. To Young, a man who holds life in a bear hug, many Japanese youth seem to “have lost all interest in life. It’s like the society has pummeled them.”

Young has a plea and it’s that Japan listen to its own people, in particular to young Japanese who have traveled or lived abroad. “When you talk to these young people it’s like their minds are so much more open to ideas, but Japanese society is not listening to them. I wish Japan would listen, make forums, ask what can be done to change the country, and then give these people a chance to speak.”

More information about the Goa project can be found at www.quoz.biz/theschool.asp